I am doing a study on the verbal forms "Simple Past". I have doubts with the construction "were scattered", because I do not know if it is the verb to be conjugated in Simple Past and followed by an adjective, or it is a Passive Construction, which I would therefore exclude from my study.

Therefore, is the verb that I have highlighted in bold written as part of a passive construction? Why? Or why not?

...One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.

from Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

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    You are mistaken to think that there is a "passive voice" in English. There is a Passive Construction, which applies to clauses, and that could be what were scattered is part of. However, there is also a Perfect Passive Participle, a form of the verb that is used in the Passive Construction, but also often appears as an adjective, as in Scattered around the floor I found the missing Legos, and that's another possibility for were scattered in this sentence. You can't tell which construction is used in that sentence. But it doesn't matter, because there's no difference in meaning. May 1 '18 at 16:01
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    Perhaps an easier-to-grasp pair of examples showing this infamous ambiguity is 'The kitchen window was broken'. (a) The kitchen window was broken by a falling tile. (b) The kitchen window was broken, they found on arriving at the house, and they knew they had been burgled. May 1 '18 at 17:59
  • @user9825893y50932: the selected answer to that question is full of misstatements and revisions, demonstrating rather clearly that there is no "passive voice" in English, but rather a variety of Passive constructions and verb forms, which do not amount to a "Voice", but rather a confusing panoply of terminology. Technically speaking, English verbs have no voices, no moods, no aspects, and only two tenses. Everything else is done by constructions, most using auxiliary verbs; certainly the Passive Construction requires an auxiliary be. May 1 '18 at 20:45
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    @Araucaria: Sometimes a comment is just a comment.  sumelic’s comment was just a comment.  The one with my name attached to it was auto-generated by the system when I voted to close. Related: Custom close reason is processed as a comment.
    – Scott
    May 5 '18 at 5:42

The passive and simple past constructions in English are not exclusive. Clauses are considered to be simple past when there is one past tense verb and the clause lacks any marking for the continuous or the perfect aspects. The continuous is marked by the presence of the auxiliary BE and a gerund-participle form of the following verb (the -ing form). The perfect aspect is marked by the presence of the auxiliary HAVE plus a so-called past participle form of the lexical verb:

  • The elephants ate the donuts. (past simple)
  • The elephants were eating the donuts. (past continuous)
  • The elephants had eaten the donuts. (past perfect)

Note that all three of the sentences above use past tense verbs, and that they only have one tensed verb per clause.

We can construct passive versions of any of the sentences above, and they will retain their tense and aspect labels. To do this we move the donuts to the Subject position and insert the passive auxiliary BE followed by a past participle form of ATE. Note that the passive auxiliary BE always comes last in the series of auxiliary verbs:

  • The donuts were eaten. (past simple)
  • The donuts were being eaten. (past continuous)
  • The donuts had been eaten. (past perfect)

These three clauses all retain the necessary features for them to be labeled as past and then simple, continuous or perfect respectively.

The Original Poster's example

others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse

How we analyse this clause depends on whether we view the word scattered as an instantiation of the verb or the adjective. The syntactic evidence here is largely inconclusive - although the meaning, given the surrounding paragraph, would suggest that it is an adjective (in other words, there is a reading where scattered indicates would indicate an event not a state, but given the surrounding description, this is not a likely reading). Either way, whether the verb scattered is a verb or an adjective , the clause is a past simple construction. It has one past tense verb, the verb were, and it lacks the necessary features to be considered either continuous or perfect. If the verb scattered is an adjective, then we would regard the clause as active. If it is a past participle form of a verb, then we would consider the clause as passive.

  • I interpret scattered as an adjective here. For it to be a passive, it should theoretically be possible to replace were with got; e.g., The window was / got broken. But, "all about others got scattered in every pose of contorted collapse" does not work for me in the context of the passage. If, on the other hand, the past perfect is used, then we clearly have a passive construction and the tenses in the passage maintain consistency: "all about others had been scattered in every pose of contorted collapse".
    – Shoe
    May 11 '18 at 6:47
  • @Shoe I agree in in terms of the semantics it's almost definitely an adjective, although there's no syntactic way of demonstrating this. However, I've edited the post. Thanks. May 11 '18 at 12:56

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