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English 362: Chapter 11: Intro to the Passive

Heyo Pwips! Before we get into the passive, let’s review the parts of the verb phrase that we have learned so far:

1. The modal auxiliaries that express “modalities”, or ways of modifying the meaning of the verb by suggesting an obligation or degree of probability.

2. The perfect aspect, which suggests a past event that has a continuing effect in the present (remember the perfect is formed by have + -en)

3. The progressive aspect, which backgrounds a process to a real or implied foregrounded event (remember progressive is formed by be + -ing)

4. The lexical verb itself

This formula sums up the verb phrase that we have learned so far:

VP = (Modal) (have+en) (be+ing) Verb


The Passive

Now we will add another element to the VP formula—the passive. The passive is formed by the auxiliary verb to be followed by a verb in the –en form. Along with being an auxiliary, the passive creates an interesting word order in sentences.

For example:

My first princess Barbie doll was destroyed by my older brother.

(Note how the passive is formed with a form of to be, in this case was, and the –en form of a verb, in this case destroyed is the –en form of destroy.)

Notice how the subject (my first princess Barbie doll) is not the thing performing the action. Rather it is receiving the action. Instead the noun phrase “my older brother” in the PrepPhr is the performer of the action. This is the unusual word order that the passive creates in a sentence. The prepositional phrase “by my older brother” is called the by-phrase.

When a sentence is in the passive, you can change it to an active sentence by taking the NP in the by-phrase and making it the subject.

For example:

My older brother destroyed my first princess Barbie doll.

We call the NP of the by-phrase the agent. When you diagram a by-phrase, its form will be PrepPhr, and its function will be Agentive. The NP of the by-phrase will simply be PrepComp.