Voice (grammar)

In the grammar of Ancient Greek, voice was called διάθεσις (diáthesis) "arrangement" or "condition", with three subcategories:

The active voice is the most commonly used in many languages and represents the "normal" case, in which the subject of the verb is the agent. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action or causes the happening denoted by the verb. Sentence (1) is in active voice, as indicated by the verb form saw.

In Classical Greek, the middle voice is often used for material processes where the subject is both the actor (the one doing the action) and the medium (that which is undergoing change) as in "the man got a shave", opposing both active and passive voices where the medium is the goal as in "The barber shaved the man" and "The man got shaved by the barber". Finally, it can occasionally be used in a causative sense, such as "The father causes his son to be set free", or "The father ransoms his son".

Some languages have even more grammatical voices. For example, Classical Mongolian features five voices: active, passive, causative, reciprocal, and cooperative.

In general, the grammar of standard Chinese (both including Mandarin and Cantonese) shares many features with other varieties of Chinese. However, there are still some differences between the different varieties.

Mandarin active voice sentences has the same verb phrase structure as English active voice sentences. There is a common active construction in Mandarin called Ba(把) construction:

This Ba construction is also a direct opposition of active voice in passive voice in Mandarin (i.e. Ba construction (= active voice) vs. Bei construction (= passive voice)).

(Note: the first line is in Traditional Chinese while the second is Simplified Chinese)

corresponds to the following sentence using passive voice. Note that the agent phrase is optional.

Mandarin also has an object-retaining passive which contains both the object and the topic (mostly the possessor of the object):

We can see from the examples above, the difference between long passive and short passive depends on whether the agent phrase is presented or not.

Ting (1998) proposed that Bei is acting as a verb and it is widely accepted so far. Ting stated that Bei construction is not used uniformly in all passive contexts in Mandarin. Rather, three types of Bei-sentences must be introduced. The main distinction is discovered in A-movement and lexical passive compound verb. To some extent, his theory was also supported by Yip et al. (2016), where they also proposed three different forms of passive Mandarin. Ting’s claims were based on his investigation of post-verbal overt pronominal object, locality of selection, occurrence of the particle suo(所) in Bei construction, and the intervention of adverbs within the Bei-V compound (= co-verb). He believed that Bei construction is presented in three types, two of them have different selectional properties, and the other one is lexically derived as Bei-V compound.

Here is an example of showing a sentence having different selectional properties in its subject and object:

According to Yip et al. (2016), there are three forms in passive voice depending on the tone and emphasis. They are notional passive, formal passive, and lexical passive.

No formal passive marker is needed and carries an expository tone. It is the most common form of passive voice in Mandarin and is extremely colloquial. Passive marker is excluded in notional passive because the sentence relies on the hearer’s common sense or their knowledge of the world. Thus, this passive voice is expressed implicitly. Furthermore, notional passive sentences can be representing either positive or negative meanings.

In other voices in Mandarin, “object + transitive verb” construction is usually used. However, “topic + explanatory comment” is the common structure for notional passive. There is no surface passive marker in the sentence, but the underlying meaning does carry a passive voice.

The negation of notional passive is similar to English negation. Both are achieved by adding the negator “mei(you)没(有)” right before the transitive verb. In fact, in negation, “le” is no longer necessary in the sentence.

Most objects present in notional passive are inanimate objects because ambiguity can arise if we use animate objects in these sentences. To avoid this problem, formal or lexical passive markers will be introduced in the sentence.

A formal passive marker is introduced as "bei" and it is usually in narrative tone. It is generally used as the narration or description of an event that has already taken place. Additionally, formal passive sentences can only represent negative meanings, otherwise it is ungrammatical. It can be used in both informal and formal contexts.

There is a striking feature of formal passive which makes it different from other forms of passives. The formal passive is presented as including “bei” as a co-verb in sentence and acting as a formal passive marker. “Bei” indicates the subject of the sentence is the action receiver. The initiator of this action is usually presented after “bei”. But this initiator could be overt (unstated), covert (revealed), or vague.

Although the most common formal passive marker is “bei”, it can also be replaced by rang让, jiao教, gei给, etc. The identity of the initiator is either overt or vague. “Bei” cannot be used in imperatives, but other formal passive markers can be used in colloquialism.

No formal passive marker is present, but the passive voice is introduced by a verb that indicates the subject as the receiver of the action, then the verb is followed by an object. The literary meaning is quite similar to English inverted sentences. It is usually a formal tone. Common indicators are a set of verbs, like dedao得到, shoudao受到, zaodao遭到 (the three most common verbs used in lexical passive), etc.

The semantic formula: receiver + verb + initiator + nominalised verb. (No additional complement to the nominalised verb is allowed.)

In nominal and formal passives, the focus is on the outcome of the action, but for lexical passive, the focus has shifted to emphasize the degree of the action that has been carried out. In other words, the focus is on the initiator and nominalised verb.

We can see from this example that the characteristic of a topic/comment construction in its implication of a dropped anaphor indicates an agent.

Ting argues that sentence a) is ungrammatical and indistinguishable from ergatives, and that sentence b) is grammatical and he believes that it must have used middle voice due to their function of defocusing an agent subject. Although Bei construction in passive voice can achieve the same purpose, there is a possibility that associating with Bei construction may be inappropriate in many contexts. Thus, using middle voice is better in this case.

Due to the ongoing discussion, we still don’t have a uniformed theory in middle voice in Mandarin.

However, in some dialects of Yue, a passive voice with an optional agent phrase is also available:

This is an example of a corresponding active voice and direct passive voice sentence.

lit. ‘Ken was scolded his son by the teacher.’ (cf. Ken’s son was scolded.)

In this example of a possessive passive there is a kinship relation between the grammatical subject which is ‘Ken’ and the direct object which is the ‘musuko’ (son).

In these examples we can see that the passive morpheme “-(r)are” is outside of the embedded sentence which shows that “-(r)are” is part of the underlying structure for both direct and indirect passives.

In non-uniform theory -(r)are is not contained within the underlying structure so in this sentence is the result of a subject object shift.

For indirect passive sentences -(r)are is contained within the underlying structure (Note: This example is adapted from Toyota (2011).

In other languages, the subject is omitted and a specific impersonal form of the verb is used.

The construction has equal validity in transitive and intransitive clauses, and the best translation into English is normally by using the "dummy" subjects "they", "one", or impersonal "you". For example, the common sign against tobacco consumption has its closest direct translation in English as "No smoking":

In English, the formation of the passive allows the optional inclusion of an agent in a prepositional phrase, "by the man", etc. Where English would leave out the noun phrase, Irish uses the autonomous; where English includes the noun phrase, Irish uses its periphrastic passive – which can also leave out the noun phrase:

Der Rasen wird gemäht ("The lawn is being mown", literally "The lawn becomes mown", dynamic)

Note that for some speakers of English the dynamic passive constructed with get is not accepted and is considered colloquial or sub-standard.

Dynamic passive in Swedish is also frequently expressed with the s-ending.

The vara passive is often synonymous with, and sometimes preferable to, simply using the corresponding adjective:

The bli passive is often synonymous with, and sometimes preferable to, the s-passive:

Static forms represents much more a property or general condition, whereas the dynamic form is a real passive action entailing "by someone":