The Passive Voice

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
THE PASSIVE VOICE

The aim of this post is not to teach you conjugation tables, which will not be given here, but rather to explain to you a few things concerning the use of the passive voice. Most of the post is intended for a readership of intermediate Latin students, though some parts, mainly in sections 1-4, might also be of some use to those new to the passive voice (ignore the note in the second section if you haven't learned the gerundive yet). All in all, if you're a curious beginner, just read, and trust your own feeling as to whether it is or isn't too much for you to take in at once; if you start feeling like it's too much and it's confusing you rather than helping you, then stop, and, if needed, come back a few weeks or months later (depending on your learning rate).


Table of Contents

1. Rough Definition of the Passive Voice and Simple Examples
2. Agents of Passive Verbs
3. What Can and What Cannot Become the Subject of a Latin Passive Verb
4. On the Impossibility of Most Passive Forms in Intransitive Verbs
5. Impersonal Passive
6. Passive in Middle Sense


1. Rough Definition of the Passive Voice and Simple Examples

The passive voice is the form in which a verb is put when its subject, rather than doing the action, undergoes it. Here are a few examples in both Latin and English:

Vacca a Marco pascitur = The cow is fed by Marcus.
Litterae scriptae ab imperatore sunt = A letter was written by the general.
Novi cotidie contrariique rumores audiebantur = New and contradictory rumors were heard every day.


2. Agents of Passive Verbs

A passive verb may have an agent, that is the person or thing that does the action; in English, the agent is preceded by the preposition "by", as in "by Marcus" and "by the general" above. In Latin, an agent that is viewed as animate is generally in the ablative preceded by the preposition a(b)*, as in a Marco and ab imperatore above. An agent that is viewed as inanimate (which in many cases may also be considered an instrument) is put in the bare ablative, without a(b); for example, "The statue was struck by lightning" = Statua fulmine icta est; "He was awoken by a great noise" = Magno strepitu expergefactus est.

*The main exception to this rule is that the animate agent of a gerundive is usually in the dative, although it is debatable whether this is really, properly an agent. For a sentence like hic liber mihi legendus est, textbooks and the like will often give you a "literal" translation along the lines of "This book must be read by me"; however, if one wants to be really as literal as one can possibly be, it is "This book is for me having/needing-to-be-read"; that is, it means that there is for you an obligation or need to read the book; to my mind, the idea of mihi remains, literally, that of "to/for me" rather than "by me", even though it can be translated as "by me" in this context (note that an even less literal, but more natural, English translation would be "I must read this book", "I should read this book", "I need to read this book", or "I've got to read this book"). "Dative agents" also occasionally occur with other things than the gerundive, notably with perfect passive participles; but, unlike with the gerundive, where the dative is the norm, a(b) + abl. remains more usual here in most situations. A gerundive may take an animate agent in the ablative preceded by a(b) instead of the dative when the latter would cause confusion because another dative is involved. For example, since the verb servire, "to serve", takes the dative of the person or thing served, you will not translate "I must serve you" as tibi mihi serviendum est (which would be too confusing and was avoided by the Romans certainly for that reason), but tibi a me serviendum est.


3. What Can and What Cannot Become the Subject of a Latin Passive Verb

In English, it is possible not only for what would have been the direct object of an active verb, but also for what would have been its indirect object, to be made into the subject of a passive verb, as in "I was told a story", where "I was told" does not mean that someone told you to someone, but that someone told something to you. This does not happen in Latin. In Latin, only what would have been the direct object of an active verb can become the subject of that verb in the passive. Thus, sentences like "I was told a story" or "I was given an opportunity" in Latin will become literally "A story was told to me" and "An opportunity was given to me": fabula mihi narrata est, occasio mihi data est: only "story" and "opportunity", which would have been the direct objects in the active versions "someone told me(I.O.) a story(D.O.)" and "someone gave me(I.O.) an opportunity(D.O.)", can become subjects of the passive verbs in Latin.


4. On the Impossibility of Most Passive Forms in Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs—that is verbs that don't take a direct object—have no passive except in one specific construction which will be explained in the next section. This is logical enough; to demonstrate why it is so, let's take the English intransitive verb "to fall" as an example: you can't "fall" someone or something, right? You don't say "I fall you" or "I fall this" (at least, not in common present-day English). Therefore someone or something can't "be fallen by you". The same impossibility is there in Latin. One thing that can confuse English-speaking students of Latin into using incorrect and/or inexistent passive forms in Latin is the fact that in English, past participles are sometimes used with an active sense, whereas this is usually not the case in Latin (barring with deponent verbs and a few other exceptions). When you say in English that something or someone "is fallen", it has an active sense, not passive: it means that the person or thing has fallen, not that someone "falls them"; therefore it's something quite different from the Latin passive. *Casus as a perfect passive participle of cadere simply doesn't exist in correct Latin, because it would be applied to someone "having been fallen (by someone)", and this meaning is just impossible. Same with *ventus, *resurrectus... and most intransitive verbs. However, perfect passive participles (as well as other passive forms) of intransitive verbs exist in the neuter singular, in a construction with no true English equivalent called "impersonal passive", which I am about to explain in the following section.


5. Impersonal Passive

An intransitive verb may appear in the third person singular passive with a neuter impersonal subject, a sort of "it".

For example, you can say venitur: this would translate literally to "it is come", but it doesn't mean that some specific thing has come (that would be an active meaning); rather, one may say that "it" represents the action of coming itself; thus, it means that the action of coming is being done, that one is coming, they are coming, some person or people are coming.

Remember what I said earlier about the direct object of a verb being the only thing able to become the subject of the same verb in the passive, and about intransitive verbs having no passive (except for this impersonal passive) for that reason (since they can't take a direct object in the active, they can't have a subject in the passive—you can't fall someone, so someone can't be fallen by you): well, actually, you may consider that intransitive verbs sort of do have an object, but that object, instead of being a regular, external direct object, is included in the verb itself; it is the action itself: venio = "I come" = "I do a coming"; venerunt = "They came" = "They did a coming". So in Latin this "internal" object, which is the action itself, can become the impersonal subject of a passive verb: venitur = "it is come" = "a coming is being done" (that is, one is coming, people are coming); ventum est = "it was come" = "a coming was done" (that is, one came, some people came).

Transitive verbs (that is verbs that take direct objects) are much less often found in the impersonal passive than intransitive ones, probably because it would often be easy to misinterpret the impersonal passive of a transitive verb as personal—to understand e.g. amatur as "he/she/it (some specific thing) is loved" rather than as "it is loved" in the impersonal sense of "the action of loving is being done"—but it nonetheless occasionally occurs (for an example of amatur in the impersonal passive, see Plautus, Pseudolus, 273: BAL. Quid agitur, Calidore? CAL. Amatur atque egetur acriter.).

Here are a few examples of impersonal passive:

Postquam in agrum Romanum ventum est, obviam hosti consules eunt (Livy) = After they reached the Roman countryside (literally "after it was come into the Roman countryside (= after the action of coming into the Roman countryside was done)"), the consuls went (literally "go", historical present) to meet the enemy.
Sic itur ad astra (Vergil) = Thus does one go to the stars (literally "thus is it gone to the stars (= thus is the action of going to the stars done)").
Totis trepidatur castris (Caesar) = Panic throughout the camp (literally "it is panicked in the whole camp (= the action of panicking is done in the whole camp)").
Serius ocius moriendum est = Sooner or later, one must die (literally "it must be died (= the action of dying must be done)").


6. Passive in Middle Sense

The passive voice is also used when the subject is not really being acted upon by some external agent, but rather acts upon itself or undergoes a more or less spontaneous action. Some languages, like Ancient Greek, have a separate voice for this, called middle voice; that is why, when the passive is used with this meaning in Latin, it is called "passive in middle sense".*

This use of the passive is rather tricky for English-speaking Latin students, and easily causes mistakes on the part of those who try to write in Latin without being properly aware of it.

In English, many transitive verbs (verbs taking direct objects) can also be intransitive (not taking direct objects), their intransitive use corresponding to the meaning of the Latin passive in middle sense. For example, you can say "I open the door" (here "open" is transitive, with the door as a direct object) and "the door opens" (here "opens" is intransitive). The latter does not mean that the door is opening something else (which would be a transitive use of "open") but that the door is opened or opens itself. In Latin, on the other hand, ianua aperit can only mean that the door is opening something else. "The door opens" in the sense of the door being opened or opening itself must be translated with the passive voice in Latin: ianua aperitur.

So, if you write in Latin, you should be careful about those English verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive; very often, their Latin equivalents can only be transitive, and the intransitive use of the English verbs will translate into Latin with the passive in middle sense. A few such verbs are "to open", "to change", "to turn", "to move"... In Latin, aperio, muto, verto, moveo**, mean that I open something, change something, turn something, move something. If I just open, change, turn, move; or open myself, change myself, turn myself, move myself; or undergo an opening, undergo a change, undergo a turn, undergo a move (as opposed to causing an opening, change, turn, or move in some object), in Latin that will be aperior, mutor, vertor, moveor. These are of course not the only verbs to behave like this; they're only a few very common ones that came to mind as examples.

Here are a few example sentences using the passive in middle sense:

Status noster mutabitur in melius = Our situation will change for the better.
Illa saga modo in noctuam, modo in vespertilionem vertitur = That witch sometimes turns into an owl, sometimes into a bat.
Conversus sum ut viderem vocem quae loquebatur mecum (Rev. 1:12) = I turned to see the voice that spoke to me.
Fortunae rota volvitur (Carmina Burana) = The wheel of Fortune turns.
Statua non movetur = A statue doesn't move.

*The use of the middle voice in Greek is a bit broader than that of the middle-sense passive in Latin, but they are similar enough for the latter to be named after the former.

**There are a few occurrences of muto, verto and moveo being intransitive (as in "I change", "I move", "I turn"), but those are exceptions, not the rule.
 

Dantius

Homo Sapiens
Staff member
3. What Can and What Cannot Become the Subject of a Latin Passive Verb

In English, it is possible not only for what would have been the direct object of an active verb, but also for what would have been its indirect object, to be made into the subject of a passive verb, as in "I was told a story", where "I was told" does not mean that someone told you to someone, but that someone told something to you. This does not happen in Latin. In Latin, only what would have been the direct object of an active verb can become the subject of that verb in the passive. Thus, sentences like "I was told a story" or "I was given an opportunity" in Latin will become literally "A story was told to me" and "An opportunity was given to me": fabula mihi narrata est, occasio mihi data est: only "story" and "opportunity", which would have been the direct objects in the active versions "someone told me(I.O.) a story(D.O.)" and "someone gave me(I.O.) an opportunity(D.O.)", can become subjects of the passive verbs in Latin.
Perhaps, however, it is good to mention that words which take a double accusative can get turned into the passive voice with a direct object:
Pacifica sodales huius fori linguam Latinam docuit.
becomes:
Sodales huius fori a Pacifica linguam Latinam docti sunt.

Likewise with "rogo", for instance in the phrase "rogatus sententiam", "(having been) asked for his opinion".
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Yes. It should be further noted, however, that (in Latin at any rate) the people taught and asked in the active versions of those phrases are direct objects, not indirect ones. An indirect object really can't become the subject of a passive verb in Latin (good classical Latin at any rate). Differences of constructions between Latin and English—as, for example, an indirect object being used with the verb "to teach", as in "I taught you this" = "I taught this to you", while Latin docere takes a double accusative—are things that I guess should be learned case by case. Similarly, some verbs that are transitive in English are intransitive in Latin, etc.; but I contented myself with explaining the principal theory without talking about too many specific cases. But maybe you're right to mention this, since something like rogatus sententiam bears a sufficient superficial resemblance to the English construction where the indirect object becomes the subject to mislead someone, perhaps.
 
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