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Example sentence:

In Tahiti there has not been a cyclone for 12 years.

Is this sentence in the passive voice? How can you tell?

I believe it follows the syntax rule for passive voice: to be + past participle, but I am struggling to convert it to active voice, so now I'm unsure whether or not it's passive.

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  • Where is the past participle of your rule? Active: A cyclone has not appeared for 12 years. Passive: A cyclone has not been seen for 12 years. Dec 3 '20 at 15:32
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    @YosefBaskin How can your intransitive sentence be considered active? It has no object being acted upon by a transitive verb.
    – tchrist
    Dec 3 '20 at 15:36
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    @Jack The formula you quote for the passive voice, "be + past participle", does not mean "been". It means : BE (is/was ...etc.) + past participle of a VERB (done/cleaned/seen... etc.). OK ?
    – Patrick D
    Dec 3 '20 at 15:51
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    In Tahiti and for 12 years are completely irrelevant to the question being asked here (which could have just cited something as simple as There is no money). I don't know the formal terminology to describe using There is [an X] to mean An X exists, but it's certainly not a "passive" construction. Dec 3 '20 at 18:50
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    As Patrick D said, in the formula "be + past participle", for example "be done" or "be cleaned" is the past participle of "to do" or "to clean". In your example, the verb "has been" is the past tense of "to be", not a passive form of a different verb.
    – alephzero
    Dec 4 '20 at 1:18
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Your sentences is not in the least bit “passive”. To show you what a passive version would be, we will posit that:

  1. To storm something is the transitive verb that acts upon something, as in storming the beaches of Normandy.
  2. Cyclones is the grammatical agent directing that action.
  3. Tahiti is the grammatical patient being acted upon by that action.

Then it follows that this is the active way to express that relationship:

  • Cyclones haven't stormed Tahiti for twelve years now.

While this is the passive way to express that same relationship:

  • Tahiti has not been stormed by cyclones for twelve years now.

In both versions, the agent and patient are the same even though the subject and object have been swapped.

No one seems to know what passive means any longer. Please read linguist Geoffrey Pullum’s brief synopsis of the passive in English. He also has a longer paper on this if you'd like more details.

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    The question does not involve the verb to storm.
    – jsw29
    Dec 3 '20 at 22:39
  • A cyclone is not a body of troops, so I don't see how it can storm an island. lexico.com/definition/storm
    – David K
    Dec 3 '20 at 23:41
  • @DavidK Well, you could verb the noun "storm", but we all know that verbing weirds language.
    – alephzero
    Dec 4 '20 at 1:21
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    @TonyK: While I agree that this answer doesn't do a good job of explaining why the original sentence is not in passive voice, I also think there are more polite (or rather, less unnecessarily rude) ways to express that sentiment... Like just saying "this answer doesn't do a good job of explaining why the original sentence is not in passive voice". (Of course, the first line in the last paragraph of the answer is also needless and a bit condescending...)
    – V2Blast
    Dec 4 '20 at 4:47
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    ...Anyway, an explanation of the passive in English is given in the linked Pullum post, but it's not actually summarized in the answer itself. The answer would be improved by quoting/summarizing the relevant part of that explanation first, and then demonstrating how the original sentence fails to meet those criteria. The bulk of the current answer is devoted to providing an example of a sentence that does have a passive; that example (i.e. the entirety of the current answer, minus the last paragraph) could be included after the previous elements I've suggested.
    – V2Blast
    Dec 4 '20 at 4:51
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Take a look at the following progression.

  1. In Tahiti, there is a cyclone. [In the active]
  2. In Tahiti, there is not a cyclone. [In the negative but in the active still]
  3. In Tahiti, there has not been a cyclone. [In the active past perfect]
  4. In Tahiti, there has not been a cyclone for 12 years. [In the active, still]

Rephrased, it is as follows.

  • There has not been a cyclone in Tahiti in 12 years.
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In passive voice, the verb is generally the copula ("be"), and the "true" subject follows the verb. For instance, in "The book was found by the student", grammatically the subject is "the book", but since the student is who actually performed the action, there is some sense that they are the "true" subject.

In your sentence, there is a form of "to be", and the subject comes after it. This may have caused you to think that this fits the pattern of the passive voice. However, in the passive voice, the copula is the main verb and is followed by a participle, but here the main verb is "have", and the copula is the participle.

The reason that the "true" subject follows the verb is because there is a dummy subject. We have a situation where we are declaring that the subject does not exist (the subject is a cyclone in Tahiti, but we're declaring there is no such cyclone), so it would be confusing to say "A cyclone has not been in Tahiti" (the phrase "a cyclone" has nothing to refer to). If we phrased it that way, it could easily be interpreted as saying that there is a cyclone, and it was somewhere other than Tahiti. We use the dummy subject to discuss the existence of the "true" subject, rather than use something whose existence is being denied as the grammatical subject.

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No, "In Tahiti there has not been a cyclone for 12 years" is not passive.

I believe it follows the syntax rule for passive voice: to be + past participle

The passive voice is usually formed with a form of to be, along with the past participle form of another verb. "Been" is the past participle of be, so your sentence doesn't meet the criteria of that rule: it only has a form of to be, but no past participle after that form. A passive sentence would have a past participle after the form of to be, like this: "The cookies have been eaten". Here been is the form of "to be" (it happens to be the past participle form, but that's not related to the sentence being passive) and "eaten" is the past participle that makes the sentence passive.

"There has been" is simply "There is" put into the perfect construction: a form of have + past participle). "There is" is not a passive construction, so "There has been" isn't either (compare the non-passive "They have eaten (the cookies)").

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