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I think I understand the difference of meaning between 'born' and 'borne', plus I have also checked out a few questions that were asked about the two terms on this forum. So, I hope I am not posting a duplicate question.

Since 'born' is an adjective and not a verb form, 'he was born on the Christmas day' cannot be considered a passive construction of 'she bore him on the Christmas day'. And saying 'he was borne on the Christmas day by her' would sound as though she put up with him on the Christmas day.

Does this simply mean that 'she bore him on the Christmas day' has no acceptable passive construction despite the verb 'bear' being a transitive verb?

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I believe the correct form is "he was born of her". At least it's better than "by her". –  Mr Lister Dec 28 '12 at 15:26
    
@MrLister: Yes, but that won't be a passive construction, will it? –  user32480 Dec 28 '12 at 15:28
    
Won't it? You're trying to confuse me now, aren't you? –  Mr Lister Dec 28 '12 at 15:31
    
@MrLister: I think it won't because 'born' is not a past participle form. It's an adjective. How can the sentence be a passive construction without a past participle? –  user32480 Dec 28 '12 at 15:34
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"He was borne by her". "Borne" is the past participle of "bear" meaning "give birth to", so the sentence "He was borne by her" is its passive form. –  user21497 Dec 28 '12 at 15:39

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Born is a rare English Deponent verb -- there may be more of them, but I can't think of any others offhand. A deponent verb is a verb that is passive in form (like be born) but not passive in meaning. This is an irregularity in a sense, because the usual forms don't have the usual meanings, but in inflected languages they are often very useful.

Latin had flocks of deponent verbs, but then in Latin it was easy to tell a Passive verb from an Active verb, because they had totally different endings. And at that, Latin was simpler than Greek or Sanskrit, which had separate Active, Passive, and Middle voice paradigms, and several different types of deponent verbs to go with them.

While it is a fact about humans that we are all borne by our mothers (which is a true passive), the universality of the event means that one's mother need not be mentioned every time one refers to one's birth year, for instance. The agent subject can be understood, since it contributes no new information. Consequently the overtly passive constructions of born in

  • He was born in 1858 and died in 1932.
  • Anderson, born in 1858, died in 1932.
  • Millicent Anderson, born and died the same year

are semantically and syntactically parallel with die, which is a punctual (happens at a point of time) inchoative (change of state) predicate, exactly like (be) born, even though die is active in form and requires no auxiliary be. Born and die even have parallel irregular nominalizations birth and death.

Executive summary: Pay no attention to official parts of speech. Look at the grammar instead.

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I bet JL can fix central heating systems too. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 28 '12 at 20:55
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Thanks for introducing me to the theory and concept of deponent verbs. It took me a while to understand what you have explained, and honestly, I don't think I have fully understood it yet. But I'm there. Fascinating things these verbs are! –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 10:01
    
As I used to tell my students, Verbs Have More Fun. –  John Lawler Feb 13 at 23:00

I am profoundly disturbed by this irruption of blatant Strunk-and-Whitery into our hitherto decently descriptive deliberations.

Whence comes this invidious distinction of adjective and participle — not only here, but in the Comments here as well? What sinister conspiracy goads this effort to deracinate honest verbals? What dread purpose lurks behind this denial of our Ancient Heritage, the freedom of our words to stride freely across the sophisticate and pragmatickal Categories of the tribe of Dryasdust?

Any participle may serve as an adjective (or, for that matter, as a noun) without thereby foregoing its verbal identity. That's what the word participle means: a form which partakes of the nature of different categories.

I implore you: Cast off these categorial shackles. Repudiate Class Conflict. Be not bound by quaint orthographic ornaments unknown to speech. Overthrow the Lexicographic Hegemony, and stoutly abjure the unholy trinity of Collins, Merriam and, yea, Webster. Écrasez l'infâme!

Descriptivists of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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Surely, the ability of a language to communicate and express is more important than its grammatical eccentricities. So I agree with you, SoneyB, that my question does sound a bit like a sinister conspiracy to deracinate honest verbals, but I am someone who finds it rather fascinating to learn how to make sense of those eccentricities. But again, I completely agree with your point. –  user32480 Dec 29 '12 at 10:11

The OED’s 43rd definition of the verb bear is ‘Of female mammalia, and especially women: To bring forth, produce, give birth to (offspring)’. The active sentence She bore him on Christmas Day therefore means that she produced him from her womb on Christmas Day. Of the child so produced it is possible to say He was born on Christmas Day. That is a passive construction in which born is not an adjective, but the past participle of bear.

The OED’s note on the variant spellings says that borne is used as the only past participle of bear in some senses. Born is limited to the birth sense, and only in the passive and when not followed by by. This means that a passive construction featuring the agent must be He was borne by her on Christmas Day.

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It can indeed be borne, although that does have the alternative interpretation you put forward.

Bear can mean "give birth to" as well as "tolerate", "carry" and "support". All the meanings can have the past participle borne.

He was borne by Mary.

His insults were borne by his family.

The crop was borne to market on a donkey.

The load of the roof was borne by the stone columns.

However it would be more usual to use the form born (which uses of, not by)...

He was born of Mary,

...and leave the past participle borne for a more complex sentence with two objects:

His wife had borne him a son.

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