I'm having a discussion with someone and we are having a few disagreements over whether this sentence is passive voice or not:

"I was scared by the noise."

We've discussed linking verbs, whether "scared" is an adjective or not, whether it is the past participle in the active voice, etc.

So, is that sentence in the passive voice?



In itself the construction [BE + past participle of a transitive verb] is often ambiguous: it can be read as either

a passive construction, in which BE is the passive auxiliary, or
a copulation, in which BE is the ordinary copula (linking verb) and the past participle acts as an ascriptive adjective

Consequently the bare statement I was scared could be read as either narration of an event in passive voice or a description of your state of mind.

But in your sentence the construction is followed by a by phrase designating an Agent, the noise. You have made it explicit that something 'performed' the action of scaring you; consequently I was scared has to be taken as a passive.

  • I'd never really thought about this one before. My instinctive default interpretation of I was scared / frightened / shocked / embarrassed / etc as "adjectival" is so strong I find it quite hard to imagine using them reflecting a "passive" usage. But you're quite right that syntactically it's all pretty clear-cut (or ambiguous, as the case may be! :) Is there an easy way to summarize why passive is an unlikely interpretation for examples like mine? Aug 21 '16 at 15:39
  • @FumbleFingers Hmm, good question. Off the top of my head: the passive is implicitly perfective and telic and implies a resulting state--(indeed that seems to me very likely why we construct the passive with the copula). With a bare copula (I was scared, John was killed, Dinner is served) there is nothing to put the focus--the 'new information'--on the performance of the action, so the focus is on its outcome. ... And if all that sounds a lot like my description of the perfect, well, yeah, they seem to be closely related--by the PaPpl, if nothing else. Aug 21 '16 at 16:16
  • Contrasting I was scared / I felt scared, it seems to me they're semantically equivalent so long as we discard the highly unlikely "passive" interpretation (which I really can't make work with the felt version). But they certainly don't seem to be equivalent with I was robbed / I felt robbed. Aug 21 '16 at 16:46
  • (Where I can get my head around We wuz robbed, so it's not surprising we felt robbed.) Aug 21 '16 at 16:48
  • ...can't resist saying that it amuses me to discover the orthography We wuz robbed outranks We was robbed in Google NGrams. Aug 21 '16 at 16:53

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