Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 8 August 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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The Frequency of the Passive in Indian English

Rohit S. Kawale, M.A., M. Phil., Ph.D.


The frequency of the passive in English has attracted the attention of many grammarians. Most analyses of the passive in English are based on Svartvik's study (1966) of the same. He finds out the frequency of the passive in various registers in his analysis and one of his main findings is the centrality of the agentless passive type in English. After applying his model to data collected from the two corpora of Indian English, it is found that the overall frequency of the passive in Indian English is almost the same as in British English. It is also found that the agentless passive type is the central passive type in Indian English, too. Another finding is that the frequency of the passive depends more on the formality scale and less on the medium (spoken or written). More formal types of register contain more passive clauses.


The passive voice construction - usually referred to as 'the passive' in grammar books - is one of the sub-systems of the grammar of English which have attracted grammarians a lot. Especially, the frequency of the passive in English has been a matter of considerable interest for grammarians. Grammarians have been making an observation for a long time (e.g. Jespersen (1933)) that the agentless passive type (i.e. the one that does not contain any agent phrase, such as one beginning with the preposition by) is most common in English.

Svartvik's Findings

Svartvik (1966) is the first grammarian to make an empirical, corpus-based study of the passive in English. He analyses the data of the passive collected from a corpus of 3, 23,000 words. On the basis of over 3500 instances of the finite passive he draws conclusions about the use of the passive in English, one of them being about the frequency of the passive in English. He points out that there is considerable variation in overall frequency in the individual texts. The frequency is measured in terms of the number of finite passive clauses per thousand words.

According to Svartvik (1966), the major determining stylistic factor in the frequency of the use of the passive lies "in a distinction such as that between informative and imaginative prose, rather than in a difference of subject matter or between the spoken and written language" (p. 155). He adds that within the category of informative prose, passives are most commonly found in scientific exposition. At one end, the highest frequency of the passive is in science (23.1 occurrences of the passive clause per thousand words). At the other end, the lowest frequency is in advertising (3 passive clauses per thousand words). The frequency in news (15.8 passive clauses per thousand words) is less than that in science. Speech occupies an intermediate position between the extremes, with a frequency of 9.2 occurrences per thousand words. The frequency in novels and plays is less than that in speech.

Svartvik (1966) gives a classification of the types of passive in English. The classification is as follows.

i) Animate agent passives: The agent phrase is present in the clause, and the agent is animate.

ii) Inanimate agent passives: The agent phrase is present, and the agent is inanimate.

iii) Janus agent passives: Sometimes prepositional by-phrases may be interpreted either as agents, in which case they are class ? passives, or as adjuncts, in which case they are class ? (i.e. agentless) passives. The following is an example.
1. It advises a wise man to straighten his mind as an arrow is straightened by a fletcher." (Kolhapur Corpus, D 10, 1660-1670)

In one interpretation, the fletcher straightens the arrow (therefore an inanimate agent passive), and in another interpretation someone straightens the arrow with a fletcher (making it an agentless passive).

The above three types have a direct transformational relationship with the active, as they can be converted into the active without any further changes.

iv) Agentless passives: It has no expressed by-agent, but may have direct agent extension with subsequent systemic potential active transformation. The word 'direct' denotes that agent extension and active transformation are possible within the same tense. For example,

2. Scientific progress is misused creating nuclear bombs & not for betterment but to extinguish the lovely & beautiful God's creativity. (ICE-IND:W1A-002#94:2)

It is possible to give an agent extension such as by man to the above sentence. Subsequently, it is also possible to make an active transformation in the same tense, as in the following.

3. Man misuses scientific progress…

v) Quasi-agentive passives: It holds an intermediate position on the passive scale, as it has both adjectival and verbal features. Its verbal character is found in its potential transformation into an extensive active clause, as in the following example.

4. And I must say that all have been impressed with the fresh view points which he has been presenting. (ICE-IND:S2A-026#14:1:A)

It can have the following active transform.

5. The fresh view points which he has been presenting have impressed all.

The adjectival nature is seen in its potential transformation into an intensive active clause, and in its ability to take coordination with adjectives, qualification, and lexically marked auxiliaries such as feel, become, seem and get. The following is an example of potential transformation into an intensive active clause.

6. Ajay, I am worried about Priti. (Kolhapur Corpus, K 31, 0490)

It has the following potential transformation into intensive active clause.

7. "Ajay, Priti makes me worried."

In the two examples given above, the prepositions used in agent phrases are with and about respectively. Such prepositions other than by are called 'quasi-agents'. That-clauses and to-clauses can also function as agents.

This class has two sub-classes - 'attitudinal passives and 'emotive passives'. The following are examples of the attitudinal passive.

8. He was fully entitled to his opinions against birth control. (Kolhapur Corpus, J 31, 0440-0450)

9. We feel inclined to ask how long this lovely lamb is being slain. (Kolhapur Corpus, D 04, 1290-1300)

Unlike emotive passives, the attitudinal passive cannot have the following kind of active transformation.

10. *His position made him entitled to…

The feature of lexically marked auxiliary (feel in this case) can also be seen in 9. The possibility of active transformation is less normal in attitudinal and emotive passives as compared with agentive passives explained above.

vi) Non-agentive passives: Svartvik (1966) finds it the most multifarious class of all. In most non-agentive passives, no agent is conceived of. For instance,

11. The intermediate type of parenchyma cells are formed in the same manner as has been described for phloem. (Kolhapur Corpus, J 11, 1480-1500)

Some non-agentive passives are such that an agent is identifiable, but an active construction is not possible, as in the following example.

12. Drinking of water having more than 15 ppm of fluorides is said to cause dental as well as skeleton forms of fluorosis. (Kolhapur Corpus, H 10, 1610-1620)

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

A Study of Structural Duplication in Tamil and Telugu - A Doctoral Dissertation | Computational Linguistics as a Curriculum for Engineering Students in India | A Discourse Analysis of R. K. Narayan's The Man-eater of Malgudi | Sense of Place and Sense of Dislocation in Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace | Teaching English Language Skills for Law - A Malaysian Case Study | Bi/Multilingualism and Issues in Management of Communication Disorders With Emphasis on Indian Perspectives | Role of English as a Tool for Communication in Tamil Society | The Frequency of the Passive in Indian English | Light Verbs in Gojri | The Core Functions of the English Modals - Speech Act Approach | Phonological Mean Length of Utterance (Pmlu) in Kannada-Speaking Children | Tolkaappiyam - Kaviraajamaarga - A Brief Note of Comparison | A Review of A Quick Guide to Postgraduate Supervision | Procedure to Develop Competency Based Self-Learning Materials | HOME PAGE of August 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Rohit S. Kawale, M.A., M. Phil., Ph.D.
Sangamner College
Sangamner 422 605
Maharashtra, India

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