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Most definitions of the active voice I've come across define it as a sentence where the subject is the agent of an action verb, and some definitions state that the verb must be transitive and requires an object. But there are only two voices in English, so in what voice are sentences that use state verbs or copulas?

For example:

I belong to a gym.

She is a good teacher.

The grapes need eating.

The patient underwent surgery this morning.

Or is this just one of those things where the issue is simply more complex than commonly explained? Perhaps it is that by 'agent' we do not necessarily mean the 'actor' as would be necessitated by an action verb. State verbs also have an agent, in the sense that the subject experiences or is in a certain state. Similarly, with copulas the subject has agency in as much as it receives the attributes in the subject complement.

I teach ESL and I need a way of explaining this concept that does not lead to confusion, but I also want to be sure that my explanation is linguistically accurate.

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    These analyses indicate that some grammarians think that the problem starts way before the transitive / intransitive ... / link verb over-simplification. Allerton (edited by Aarts et al) posits that have in say 'The piano had a stool' (obviously non-passivisable) does not fit into any of these categories. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 8 '18 at 9:22
  • Thanks Edwin. I wonder what role the evolution of language and ellipsis is playing in all of this. Where 'he told the story to me' becomes 'he told to me the story,' becomes 'he told me the story.' Then such usage is transferred to other verbs like 'hit'. But there is a big difference between 'he told me' and 'he hit me'. Anyway, digging in now, and once again thanks. – Ubu English Jan 9 '18 at 7:26
  • 'He told me' is grammatically complete but semantically incomplete (as a bare sentence - we either tell something, or someone something). 'He told a story' is complete at both levels. 'Tell' is clearly ditransitive but it requires a direct object (at least in context by ellipsis) to be meaningful. But 'hit' is not is not, strictly speaking' ditransitive even though it has been used that way. 'He hit me' - transitive/ DO, semantically/ grammatically complete. No context or ellipsis is going to change the meaning of this sentence. – Ubu English Jan 9 '18 at 7:45
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    @UbuEnglish: The historical process you describe isn't accurate. Old English had dative pronouns that appeared naturally after the verb and before the accusative object. The use of a prepositional phrase substituting for the dative is the novelty. – KarlG Jan 9 '18 at 11:16
  • @KarlG: Yes, I was just wondering out loud about it. It's a bit ironic that we've taken to talking about pronouns, case, and transitivity, not to mention living language, which is all very interesting but somewhat besides the point. None of my sample sentences should raise these issues (inevitable as it may be). Thanks again for your input. – Ubu English Jan 9 '18 at 13:00
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You're confusing things. In order to transform a sentence from the active voice to the passive, it must contain a transitive verb and an object. The object becomes the new grammatical subject (called the patient) and the former subject becomes the agent following the prepositions by or through, or is simply left out:

Active: Heavy winds toppled two ancient oak trees in the park.

Passive: Two ancient oak trees in the park were toppled by heavy winds.

Active: Somebody bought four of my paintings at last week's auction.

Passive: Four of my paintings were bought at last week's auction.

Intransitive verbs can never be in the passive voice because there is no object to become the new subject: they do not tranfer action from a subject to an object, so that action can't be recast as patient and agent.

  • I'm not confused about this; I understand well the relationship between passive and active forms, and transitivity. My question is really about voice. And if it is true that all sentences in English are voiced, either passive or active, then how should clearly non passive structures be classified when the verbs used are not transitive - i.e without a DO complement. – Ubu English Jan 9 '18 at 7:22
  • If a verb isn't in the passive voice, then it must be in the active. The system is quite binary. There is no, say, mediopassive in English. My last paragraph should have taken care of that. – KarlG Jan 9 '18 at 8:07
  • @KarlG 'This wine drinks well' is often considered to show the transitive (We drank the wine) - middle alternation. / As stated above, Allerton came to the conclusion that 'The piano has a stool' cannot be sensibly considered either transitive or intransitive. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 9 '18 at 9:55
  • For an ESL class, these considerations are getting a bit too far into the weeds. The question whether intransitive verbs — whether transitivity or voice is strictly binary in English or not — are in the active voice can be answered in the affirmative without inflicting permanent damage to students. – KarlG Jan 9 '18 at 11:27
  • @KarlG : I don't even broach the topic of transitivity with my students because it's not really useful to them, however useful it might be in linguistics, but in any case, it is certainly not binary. Voice, however probably is, and that seems to be the conclusion I'm being drawn to; that the idea that the active voice requires a transitive verb or an object complement, or even has anything much to do with transitivity, is just wrong from the start. These are exactly the sort of answers I'm seeking, so thanks for your answer and comment. – Ubu English Jan 9 '18 at 12:32
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In short, the answer to the question is no. The confusion seems to come from a conflation of distinctions between the syntactic passive voice and the semantically distinguished passive verb.

Syntactically, the passive voice distinction is only relevant to sentences with a transitive or ditransitive verb and a direct object verb complement in their active version. The passive voice changes the verb's form (be + past participle), the active form's DO becomes the patient/subject, and the verb's agent is generally identified in the complement. (With active voice ditransitive verbs, either object can become the patient subject of the passive voice.)

Semantically, verbs are distinguished as passive or active based on the thematic role of the subject (agent/patient) in relation to the verb, without regard to its transitivity. If the subject is the patient of the verb, the verb is considered passive. However, whether a verb is semantically passive or not does not bear on its transitivity; some passive verbs can take the passive voice (can be used transitively) and some cannot.

So there is a syntactic distinction based solely on the use of transitive verbs in the active voice, which allow the verb to be rendered in the passive voice. The semantic distinction based on theme (a passive verb) is not related to voice. Sentences in the passive voice use a syntactically passive verb form (be + past participle), that is also semantically passive.

To say that a sentence using a passive verb is in the passive voice is incorrect (See here). It is equally incorrect to say that the active voice requires a transitive verb. Any sentence not in the passive voice is in the active voice.

The sample sentences in the original post use a passive verb and are properly defined as being in the active voice. The passive voice always changes the verb's conjugation (be + past part.) and requires a transitive construction in the active voice.

I belong to a gym. (active voice/ intransitive passive verb)

This sentence cannot be made passive. 'Belong' is always intransitive. 

She is a good teacher. (active voice/ link verb)

Link verbs cannot be made passive.

The grapes need eating. (active voice/ transitive passive verb)

This sentence can be made passive: 'Eating is needed by the grapes.'

The patient underwent surgery this morning. (active voice/ transitive passive verb)

This sentence can be made passive: 'Surgery was undergone by the patient this morning.'
  • So this is my answer to my question based on the comments and research I've done. I hope it is accurate and I hope that my betters here will let me know if I've erred in some way. – Ubu English Jan 13 '18 at 10:41
  • The problem here is that the answers you had were misleading or only partially developed. Se my comments to KarlGenglish on their answer above. It is not true at all that the subject of a passive corresponds to the Object of a verb in an active construction. That's completely untrue :( – Araucaria Jan 13 '18 at 11:02
  • @Araucaria: To say it is 'completely untrue' is a bit of an overstatement. One can almost always find exceptions. What KarlG said in his answer is generally true, even if it didn't directly address my question. Do you have any objections to my answer? – Ubu English Jan 13 '18 at 11:58
  • I don't think so. If it is the "definition" of a passive that it corresponds to the diect object of an active voice sentence, that definition is wrong. The subject of a passive can be the corresponding complement of a preposition, a direct object, an indirect object, the subject of an embedded clause and so on and so forth. It need not just be an object. Many of those basic transofrmations are what students studying at upper-intermediate, for example, are going to have to deal with. How are you going to deal with simple sentences like "This is said to be the tallest building in the world"? – Araucaria Jan 13 '18 at 12:04
  • @Araucaria: Well, for me this is a whole new can of worms and I'd have to more closely examine what your subjects, there and this are doing and what role the post matrix infinitive to be is playing in your sentences. Also I would not call these constructions simple sentences as they contain more than one clause. Is it possible, in a single clause, to form a sentence in the passive where the subject is not the DO of the active form? – Ubu English Jan 13 '18 at 12:28

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