Why does Steinbeck, when describing an old man's death, say "his breath was stopped" rather than "his breath had stopped"?

The context and full sentence below:

Grampa seemed to be struggling; all his muscles twitched. And suddenly he jarred as though under a heavy blow. He lay still and his breath was stopped. Casy looked down at the old man's face and saw that it was turning a blackish purple.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Is this an example of the simple past passive voice?

closed as off-topic by Hot Licks, user067531, David, Nigel J, Scott Feb 27 '18 at 5:33

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  • I suspect that Steinbeck used a dialectal expression typical of that era and the speakers in the state of Oklahoma, but I leave that for users who are American to confirm this suspicion. – Mari-Lou A Feb 22 '18 at 10:14
  • Is it any help that I'm hearing this in Morgan Freeman's voice? – Will Crawford Feb 25 '18 at 0:48
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it asks for literary criticism. – Hot Licks Feb 26 '18 at 2:39

his breath was stopped

was probably used to depict and external action, in this case:

" (because of someone or something) his breath was stopped "

Can you please mention the book/film's name ?

  • The grapes of wrath, John Steinbeck. – abhicantdraw Feb 22 '18 at 8:37

It’s noting the event of the breath ceasing, and put in a passive sense because the man is dead and no longer exercising volition in the matter.

The tense is appropriate. It’s in the past, but in the context of the scene, it’s happening immediately. Had stopped would imply that it happened earlier, before the events being described.

Let’s say you were witness to a road traffic accident. You might say something like

The bus came around the corner and hit the car. The car jumped into the air a bit, and the headlights were knocked out.

The lights were knocked out, right then; not had been.

EDIT: It’s possible he means the stopped in the sense of a stopper (cork) in a bottle. From Oxford “Living” dictionary:

Old English (for)stoppian ‘block up (an aperture)’, of West Germanic origin; related to German stopfen, from late Latin stuppare ‘to stuff’.

  • Will, I think you missed the difference between "stopped" and "was stopped". Could you explain that, please? – Robbie Goodwin Feb 23 '18 at 22:41
  • OP asked why was stopped vs had stopped, and I think I answered that... it's about the time (in this case somewhat immediate, so pluperfect seemed superfluous. – Will Crawford Feb 24 '18 at 0:06

Using was stopped, Steinbeck depicts a state which may not be permanent — perhaps the grandfather might take another breath — not a completed action from which there could be no recovery. That way, the reader determines that the grandfather is indeed dead at the same time as Casy. It's all about point of view. What it isn't all about is the passive voice.

If I can say

His breathing was labored.

Then I can say

His breath was stopped.

The past participle is to be parsed as an adjective would be. This construction is no more in the passive voice than

The car was stopped at a red light.

as opposed to a real passive

The car was stopped by the police.

Other examples:

But in a very short time his breath was stopped. The other three crept on their hands and knees, till two got to the shaft and were drawn up; but one of them died in a few minutes. — The Journal of John Wesley, 1952.

Until that moment I had never known what it was to be so afraid my breath was stopped, my body functionless, myself incapable of doing anything but stare in helpless shock. — Richard Matheson, A Stir of Echoes, 2013.

Her breath was stopped up in her lungs. It took effort to haul in oxygen. Her hand dipped in her purse again... — Kylie Brant, Waking Nightmare, 2009.

The patient swells up and nearly suffocated, feels as though his breath was stopped in the middle of his throat. — David Grove, Tapeworms, Lice, and Prions, 2013.

Then the king blessed the bread, and bade him eat it, and the morsel abode in his throat and choked him, so that his breath was stopped, and so died wretchedly. The Golden Legend, Vol. 6.

In the first and last examples, death comes after a person's breath was stopped; in the others, a person only feels like death is nigh, but the state of not breathing was only temporary. In none of these sentences is the verb in the passive voice.

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    KarlG, others might think differently and to me, none of that justification applies. "His breath was laboured" is grammatically similar to "… was stopped" but isn't that over-ridden by the semantic difference? – Robbie Goodwin Feb 23 '18 at 22:45
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    Well, it's either passive (stopped by death?) or stopped is used as an adjective like the car at the traffic light. Tertium non datur. You're welcome to make your own proposal in an answer. – KarlG Feb 23 '18 at 22:54

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