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Active: I want him to write the letter.

Passive: I want the letter to be written/written by him(?).

Can I use 'by him'? My grammar books didn't use it.

Passive - The poor girls are married at a young age.

Active - The poor girls' parents marry them off at a young age.

Is the active voice correct? And in the passive voice, shouldn't there be an 'off'? My book left it out.

  • "Passive: I want the letter to be written/written by him(?). -- My grammar books didn't use it." To me, it's unclear how your grammar books (is it books or book?) phrase it. It's difficult for me to imagine a grammar book explain mechanical passive transformation without using "by him" in that sentence (though it's possible, of course). Also note that your second example would come down to the nuances of marry, married, marry someone off to another someone, and marry someone to another someone. – Damkerng T. Jun 26 '14 at 6:15
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Converting from active to passive

What you'll need:

  • one active clause with
    • a real subject1
    • an object (lexically rendered, if applicable)

Instructions

Sample active clause:

The poor girls' parents marry them off at a young age.

  • Subject: The poor girls' parents
  • Object: them (lexically rendered: the poor girls)
  • Verb: marry off
  • Circumstance: at a young age

    1. The verb is put into the passive. This is done by:
    2. Adding the appropriate form of be in front of the verb
    3. Putting the verb into the past tense

      • passive verb: are married off
    4. The original Object becomes the new Subject.

      • new Subject: the poor girls
    5. (Optionally) The original Subject becomes the new Object.
      By must be added in front of it.

      • new Object: by the poor girls' or their parents
    6. Any adjuncts (for instance, circumstances that apply to the entire sentence) can be re-added.

The poor girls are married off by their parents at a young age.

Alternately, you can omit the new Object, the Circumstance, or both, if you wish to change the information conveyed in the new sentence:

The poor girls are married off at a young age.

The parents are not longer portrayed as the agents of the verb.

The poor girls are married off.

The age of the girls are no longer conveyed.

The poor girls are married off by their parents.

The parents are still the age, but their age is no longer conveyed.

An interesting case: ditransitive verbs

I read him the book (present tense)

  • Subject: I
  • Object1 (indirect): (to) him
  • Object2 (direct): the book
  • Verb: read

Passivisation options:

  • Object1-oriented:

He was read the book (by me).

  • Object2-oriented:

The book was read to him (by me).
The book was read (by me).

Note

In the case of ditransitive clauses, the direct object must be present in the passive clause:

He was read by me.

While this is technically grammatical, it doesn't have the same meaning as the Active clause, as the Active clause would now be:

I read him.

Converting from passive to active

The same thing, but in reverse:

  1. The verb is restored to the tense that be is in
  2. Remove the form of be adjacent to the verb
  3. The Object becomes the new Subject
  4. The Subject becomes the new Object

Handling cases where there is no Object in the passive

Of course, you can omit most Objects in the passive, with the exception for ditransitive verbs outlined above.

He was read the book.

Unfortunately, without more context, you can't recover the original Subject. This is a case where the writer/speaker, has (deliberately or not) omitted the original Subject (the Agent). This can be done for many reasons, for instance to lie by omission, or in the case where the person is unaware of the Agent.

Why convert to passive?

There are many reasons to convert to passive:

  • You don't know what/who the agent/Subject was in the active: you can omit it in the passive.
  • You don't want to say what/who the agent/Subject was in the active: you can omit it in the passive.
  • You want to foreground/emphasise one of the Objects rather than the Subject.
  • You want to background/underplay the Subject/agent

In fact, linguistically, the process of changing the grammatical roles from Subject to Object and Object to Subject is called demotion and promotion, respectively.


1 I say a real subject, because relational, existential, and meteorological clauses, which technically have subjects can't be passivised.

  • He is the Pope.
  • It is raining.
  • There is a dog.

Passivisations:

  • The Pope is/was him/he.
  • Raining is/was it.
  • A dog is/was there.

While The Pope is him/he is grammatical, it isn't really passivisation.

Interestingly, putting attributive clauses into the past tense can give them a passive-like construction.

  • The door was opened.

This is a much larger can of worms, and it depends largely on the context as to whether it is a passivised clause or just an adjectival usage.

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Close! The first sentence that you changed from active to passive is fine. In the second sentence, though, the poor girls are still passive actors in the sentence. Why not just "The poor girls marry at a young age"?

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    There may be a distinction. "The poor girls marry at a young age" sounds like the poor girls choose to marry. "The poor girls are married at a young age" sounds like they don't choose (either they are neutral about it, or actively negative). – Sydney Jun 25 '14 at 20:34
  • My first thought was also "The poor girls marry at a young age", but I see SydneyAustraliaESLTeacher's point. On the other hand, "I want the letter to be written by him" also has kind of a different connotation from "I want him to write the letter"--it sounds to me like the person who says "I want the letter to be written by him" is saying "Out of all the people who could write this letter, I want it to be him". Whereas the person who says "I want him to write the letter" is not even considering that someone else could write the letter. In the end, I guess it's all about context. – tsleyson Jun 29 '14 at 3:40

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