Welcome to Pellissippi Parkway's Look at English Grammar

Objects and the Passive

(Look here for a general look at Objects in English.
Objects in English (previous page)
This page:
Why use the passive
How the passive is made
Indirect Objects as Subjects
The history of the structure (language geeks only?)
Complex predicates (next page)
The passive voice makes the OBJECT, that is, the DONE-TO, into the grammatical SUBJECT of the sentence, but it remains the DONE-TO. The passive doesn't make the OBJECT into the DOER; it retains the relationship between the DOER, DONE-TO, and DONE-FOR, but allows them to be expressed in different ways.

You may have run across those "rules" of writing that say "Avoid the passive." This is an error in itself - the passive has several valuable uses: if you don't know who the doer was, or if the doer isn't important, or because it's not what you want to focus attention on.

The window was broken. I don't know who broke it.
The window was broken. It doesn't matter who did it, it needs to be fixed.
He was lied to.
And of course, you can include the doer with the preposition "by" if your main object is simply to focus attention in an unusual manner, or if the doer is modified by a lot of words, making it awkward to be at the front of the sentence (English has a strong preference for a verb in the second slot in the sentence):
Mistakes were made. And by whom? By you, that's who!
You made mistakes.
He was lied to by the one person he trusted most in all the world.
The one person he trusted most in all the world lied to him.
In a verb with only one object, the passive is simple - the verb is changed by adding the auxilliary verb "to be" and using the -N participle form (which can, of course, actually end in -ED or -T or be completely irregular, but which is named the -N form to keep it separate from the past tense), and then making the original direct object (the patient) into the subject, and either dropping the original subject (the actor) out of the sentence altogether or expressing it with a "by" prepositional phrase.
I bought the book -> the book was bought (by me) I saw the book -> the book was seen (by me)
Indirect objects can be usually used as subjects of passive voice verbs ONLY when the direct objects are also included:
He was given a book.
John was bought shoes.
Again, the doer can be included:
He was given a book by his mother.
He was told a lie by the one person in the world he trusted.
But note that the verbs that can have the direct object left out in active voice (subject = doer) CAN have it left out here, too.
Susan was told.
We were shown.
Now, let's look at the passive of the ditransitive verb, that is, the verb with two objects, one direct (the patient, or thing given for example) and the other indirect (the recipient of the thing). Note: the "to be" auxilliary must be added even if the original active voice already had one, as in
I am buying books -> books are being bought (by me)
That's the simple, transitive verb, passive. The ditransitive verb is similar, but there are differences.

Let's use "They gave him the book." as the example.
Labelling the roles we have:

They gave him the book = actor / verb / recipient / patient
First, you can make a simple passive:
The book was given ([to] him) (by them).
You see that both the indirect object and the subject of the original active voice sentence (the actor and the recipient) can be eliminated and only the direct object (the patient) retained. This is like the simple passive seen in "They bought the book -> the book was bought".

(This is the same as German's "Ihm wurde eine Krone gegeben".)

To him a crown was given = a crown was given to him.
Americans tend to use this form ("The book was given to me by my brother") somewhat less than British speakers - who know why? Probably the same 'reason' they tend to say "I'll not" where Americans say "I won't" - and the reduced form "The book was given me by my brother" (no "to") is very British indeed. Now is where it gets different. With the ditransitive verbs, you can also make a passive in which the recipient becomes the grammatical subject, and this is in fact by far the most common passive from this kind of verb. This construction requires that the direct object is stated in the passive; it can't be left out as can the actor. If only one of the original sentence's objects is expressed in the passive, it is assumed to be the direct object. Hence,
He was given = (someone) gave him (to someone) NOT (someone) gave (something) to him
For example:
The dog was given = (someone) gave the dog (to someone)
The dog was given a bone = (someone) gave a bone to the dog / (someone) gave the dog a bone
A bone was given = (someone) gave a bone (to someone)
A bone was given to the dog = (someone) gave a bone to the dog / (someone) gave the dog a bone
Tom was given a dog = (someone) gave a dog to Tom / (someone) gave Tom a dog
The only way that "He was given" can mean "to him was given" is if the thing given (the patient) is expressed:
He was given a crown = (someone) gave a crown to him
This means the same thing as "to him a crown was given". A reader asked: "how did 'to him a crown was given' become 'he was given a crown'?"

The fact is, both are still valid. But they aren't equally likely.

A couple of points in explanation:

You're more likely to hear "A crown was given to him" than you are "To him was given a crown". This is because English much prefers the subject - verb - predicate word order. It's almost obligatory; there are few occasions where you can change it, and they all result in very marked emphasis changes. (This is because we've lost our noun declensions (once we, like German, had a distinct case ending for dative and accusative), word order has become the way we show case.What this means is that the word order of a sentence - subject verb predicate - overrides nearly all other considerations.)

Second, what's the difference between "a crown was given to him" and "he was given a crown"? English prefers (not requires, only prefers) to put old information in the subject slot, and new information in the predicate, as close to the end of the sentence as possible. (This explains the difference between "I bought him a book" and "I bought a book for him", as well: one is saying "I bought him a book not a tie" and the other "I bought a book for him not for her".) Thus, if the stress in the sentence is on who received it, you'll get "a crown was given to him", while if the stress is on what he received, you'll get "he was given a crown".

Because the general tendency for ditransitives in modern English is to make their passives by raising the recipient, rather than the patient, "he was given a book" is the neutral statement, as well as the one that stresses the book rather than him; in spoken English this tendency will result in vocal stress: "HE was given a book" is more common than "A book was given to him", which is the more common in written for the same purpose. But if you're just making the passive, and intending to omit the actor, "he was given..." is the neutral and most common choice.

He asked "why" did the one become the other? I don't know for sure, but I expect it's all part and parcel of English's losing its declensions. (John Lawler of the University of Michigan's Linguistics Program expressed this as "English has been abandoning its old inflections like a snake shedding its skin since the Great Vowel Shift.") Nouns only have two forms, genitive (possessive) and "all others"; they once had four cases, though for most of them the accusative and the nominative were alike; now the dative is also the same form. Pronouns also had four cases, mostly different; now they're more varied than nouns, but none of them distinguish dative from accusative.

Here are the Old English pronouns:

ic, mic, me, min = I, me, me, my
we, us, us, ure = we, us, us, our
thu, thec, the, thin = you, you, you, your
ge, eow, eow, eower = you, you, you, your

he, hine, him, his = he, him, him, his
heo, hie, hire, hire = she, her, her, her
hit, hit, him, his = it, it, it, its
hie, hie, him, hira = they, they, them, their
Middle English is a little closer to Modern. And here's a comparison with our close cousin, modern German:
ich, mich, mir, mein = I, me, me, my
wir, uns, uns, unser = we, us, us, our
du, dich, dir, dein = you, you, you, your
ihr, euch, euch, euer = you, you, you, your

er, ihn, ihm, sein = he, him, him, his
sie, sie, ihr, ihr = she, her, her, her
es, es, ihm, sein = it, it, it, its
sie, sie, ihnen, ihre = they, them, them, their
Here are a couple of Old English nouns:
sing nom, acc, dat, poss; plural nom, acc, dat, poss

giefu, giefe, giefe, giefe; giefa, giefum, giefa = gift
stan, stan, stane, stanes; stanas, stanas, stanum, stana = stone
nama, naman, naman, naman; naman, naman, namum, namena = name
hnutu, hnutu, hnyte, hynte; hnyte, hnyte, hnutum, hnuta = nut
boc, boc, bec, bec; bec, bec, bocum, boc = book
daeg, daeg, daege, daeges; dagas, dagas, dagum, daga = day
(Now aren't you glad for language change?)

What this means is that in Modern English you can't tell what case a noun is, or whether a pronoun is accusative or dative. This has led to a strong word-order preference which makes us interpret the subject of a passive ditransitive verb as the recipient; while we can reinterpret, it's "harder work" and therefore causes us to give extra emphasis to the sentence.

In German, only an accusative can become a subject in a passive; a dative cannot. It can be moved to the front of the sentence, as my correspondent noted (Ihm wurde...), but it remains marked as the dative. I think that the Biblical (historical) "To him was given..." is a reflection of an older construction with the word marked as dative moved to the front; when 'to' became the (main) dative marker and the 'object' forms collapsed into one, it moved up to mark "him" as dative ("hine" was the old accusative of "he" and "him" was the dative). The KJV Bible was deliberately written in an old-fashioned style because the committee wanted it to sound ... not archaic, but solemn and timeless, so they harked back to the Elizabethan style of their own fathers, not the style of their Jacobean day. Even at the time, "to him was given..." sounded, well, Biblical, not ordinary. Modern English likes the subject up front and the objects decently behind the verb, but we compensate for that by using our bare, non-morphologicially shaped words as we like. If we want the recipient to be the subject, well, we can do that. The dative isn't so strongly tied to itself that it resists the transformation. All we need is to make sure the direct object is still there, so there's no confusion.

hr Got a question? Send it to me -- kmdavis@erols.com and I'll answer it.


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