Passive voice: the good zombie rule

(I’ll admit it’s not a rule so much as a test, but I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. Live with it.)

First, an apology to all my readers for not having written about this here on the blog before today. I know I’ve discussed it elsewhere on the ‘net, but an omission of this magnitude could not go unaddressed any longer.

Hey. Look at that last clause. The one after “but.”

An omission of this magnitude could not go unaddressed any longer.

What’s the subject of the clause? Omission. (And if you’re asking “what’s a clause,” know that it’s a group of words with a subject and a verb that may be independent [we call those “independent clauses,” surprise surprise, or “sentences”] or dependent [we call those “dependent clauses,” oddly enough; “while she was sleeping” is a dependent clause because it has a subject, “she,” and a verb, “was sleeping,” but that “while” on the front makes it dependent on something else to make sense].)

What’s the verb? Could go unaddressed (with a negation stuck in there, but that’s not a verb, so it’s not listed).

Who’s the actor? That is, who’s doing the addressing (or not addressing, in this example)?

It certainly isn’t the omission. That’s the object of the action of being (not) addressed. It’s also the subject of the clause. And THAT, folks, is an example of the passive voice.

I’ll stop right there and provide the definition of “voice” from the Cambridge University Press’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (Huddleston and Pullum), often referred to as “the Cambridge grammar” by those of us who study such things. Here you go:

“A system of voice is one where the terms differ as to how the syntactic functions are aligned with semantic roles. … The general terms active and passive are based on the semantic role of the subject in clauses expressing actions.”

I’m not going to delve into syntax and semantics much further, so if you want to know more, have at it. Google is your friend. Know that it means “when the subject of a clause is also the object of the verb, you’ve got a passive-voice construction.” The syntax is about where the words are in relation to one another; the semantics is about the sense or meaning of the construction the syntax creates. Normally, we expect the subject of a clause to be the actor. When it isn’t, that is, when it’s the object–the thing acted upon by a named or unnamed actor–we have passive voice.

Now, for the zombies.

Here’s a link to a discussion, with credit to the originator of the test, Rebecca Johnson.

The test is simple. If you can insert the phrase “by zombies” after the verb without altering the sense of the sentence, you have a passive construction. That bit in italics is vital. If the sense of the sentence changes, or if it no longer makes sense, the construction’s not passive.

Let’s test the clause that started all of this, okay?

An omission of this magnitude could not go unaddressed by zombies any longer.

The sense doesn’t change; we still have the omission being addressed, but now we’ve named the actor (zombies). I’ll admit that it’s unlikely for zombies to be concerned, though, so let’s try a different word. Me.

An omission of this magnitude could not go unaddressed by me any longer.

BINGO. Passive voice. I (the “me” that’s the object of the preposition “by” in that little phrase “by me”) am the one addressing (or not) the omission. I am the actor.

The omission is being addressed by me. Still passive: The verb’s a little different, “is being addressed,” but the subject of the sentence is still the object of the verb, which is being performed by me.

I am addressing the omission. No longer passive voice. Now the subject, “I,” is the actor and the verb, “am addressing,” has a direct object, “the omission.” The semantic roles and their syntactic functions are as we expect them to be. The subject is also the actor, doing something to the direct object of the verb. That’s active voice, and it’s what we use and expect and see most often.

Passive voice means the subject of the clause is also the object of the verb, which is performed by an actor that may or may not be named. It’s about the direction of the action, which flows toward the subject. 

And there might be zombies.

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