PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND SIMILAR WAYS OF EXPRESSING PASSIVE VOICE IN VIETNAMESE
THAI THI NGOC LIN
UNIVERSITY OF EDUCATION
Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu
December 30, 2009
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND SIMILAR WAYS OF EXPRESSING PASSIVE VOICE IN VIETNAMESE
In the following passage from the Declaration of Independence, they wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This is an example of using passive voice in English which may causes many troubles to Vietnamese students in translating and understanding the exact meaning of the text. Why do this happen? In Vietnamese, passive voice together with passive sentence (passive meaning) is interested by many Vietnamese linguists. The topic has been in a discussion and so far, the ideas have still been dispersed. Even the one that whether passive voice exists in Vietnamese language or not has not come to a conclusion. In English language, by contrast, passive voice is acknowledged and used as a grammar point to teach for English learners. That, as a result, has caused some misunderstanding in translation from English to Vietnamese and vice versa. English learners may make mistakes when translating passive voice structure from one language to another one because they are not congruent. My topic aims to illustrate some differences of using passive voice in English and Vietnamese in order to help learners avoid making mistakes when they translate passive voice structure from one language to another.
Definition of passive voice
So, what is passive voice? As is defined in Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia, in English, as in many other languages, the passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the subject receives the action of a transitive verb. Passive voice emphasizes the process rather than who is performing the action. Passive (or passive verb) refers more generally to verbs using this construction and the passages in which they are used. In English, a passive verb is periphrastic; that is, it does not have a one-word form, but consists of an auxiliary verb plus the past participle of the transitive verb. The auxiliary verb usually is a form of the verb to be, but other auxiliary verbs, such as get, are sometimes used. The passive voice can be used in any number of tenses. The process of changing an active verb into a passive one is called passivization. Passivization is a valence-decreasing process, and it is sometimes referred to as a detranzitivizing process, because it changes transitive verbs intro intransitives.
In the first two parts of this paper, we will find out the function and the form of passive voice used in English and in Vietnamese to get the basic knowledge of the two kinds. Then, in the third part, we will focus on the use of passive voice in English, comparing with Vietnamese, indicating the similarities and the differences, which will conduct the teaching English passive voice to Vietnamese learners.
Passive voice in english:
1. Use of passive voice:
According to Mr Martin Parrott, passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known; however, who or what is performing the action (2000, p.287)
Example: My bike was stolen. (xe đạp của tôi bị trộm)
In the example above, the focus is on the fact that my bike was stolen. I do not know, however, who did it.
In the case of the passive voice we can notice that the agent can totally disappear from the sentence and the patient takes the front position. This has two effects:
First, the patient becomes the topic of the sentence.
In our daily world we can mainly find two reasons why the actor is not mentioned in a sentence. It is either unknown or unimportant.
The first case is totally clear.
When we leave our house in the morning and can't find our car we will probably call the police and say something like:
"My car has been stolen". (xe hơi của tôi bị trộm)
Of course we could also say:
"Somebody has stolen my car". (ai đó đã trộm xe tôi)
but that would not provide any new information because that somebody is very unspecific. The real actor is unknown and that's why it will often be left out of the sentence.
The second case is also not very complicated.
We take your car to the garage and tell our colleagues during our breakfast talk:
"My car is being repaired". (xe hơi của tôi đang được sửa)
We get a general murmur of acknowledgement. Of course we could also say:
"Mr Smith, the nice mechanic in that neat blue overall, is repairing my car". (ông Smith, người thợ máy mặc áo khoát xanh ấy đang sửa xe của tôi)
However, our colleagues will frown at us because they are simply bored by such detailed information and they will also start wondering what sort of special relationship we have to that mechanic in the neat blue overall. (Too much information can be harmful!) Moreover, it will usually be unimportant which of the mechanics repairs our car at the garage and thus won't be mentioned at all.
Other very obvious examples of situations in which the actor is unknown are general descriptions or technical manuals. There we do normally not describe who performs an action but what actions must be performed.
Sometimes a statement in passive is more polite than active voice, as the following example shows:
Example: A mistake was made. (một lỗi đã bị mắc phải)
In this case, I focus on the fact that a mistake was made, but I do not blame anyone
E.g: You have made a mistake. (cậu đã mắc lỗi)
In the following examples, the verbs in the Passive Voice are underlined.
E.g: The ball was struck by the boy. (quả bong bị đập bởi cậu con trai đó)
Gold has been found by the explorers. (vàng được tìm ra bởi các nhà khám phá)
In these examples, the verbs “was struck” and “has been found” are in the Passive Voice. The subjects “ball” and “gold” refer to things receiving the actions described by the verbs.
The Passive Voice is more commonly used in English than it is in other European languages such as German or French. As well as being used in everyday English, the Passive Voice is used extensively in official documents and scientific papers.
2. Form of passive voice:
Subject + finite form of to be + Past Participle (3rd column of irregular verbs)
Example: A letter was written. (một bức thư được viết)
When rewriting active sentences in passive voice, note the following:
the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence
the finite form of the verb is changed (to be + past participle)
the subject of the active sentence becomes the object of the passive sentence (or is dropped)
Rewriting an active sentence with two objects in passive voice means that one of the two objects becomes the subject, the other one remains an object. Which object to transform into a subject depends on what we want to put the focus on.
As we can see in the examples, adding by Rita does not sound very elegant. That’s why it is usually dropped.
Similar means of expressing passive voice and the role of “bị” and “được” in Vietnamese.
1. “Bị” and “được”
While trying to describe Vietnamese like a pattern of some other foreign languages, some Vietnamese authors consider the difference between “passive voice” and “active voice”, “passive meaning” and “active meaning” as the ones which has both grammatical value and semantic value. Therefore, students are force to learn the rules, as in the exercises in grade 7 Philology schoolbook (part 2) being used in junior high school (2003, 57-58, 64-65), practicing changing active sentences into passive sentences and vice versa, which is totally the same as that in an English schoolbook. Moreover, it states that “bị” and “được” are the two main tools to mark passive voice and to distinguish it from active voice. The main problems I decide to solve are:
Do “bị” and “được” always mark passive voice or passive meaning?
Do “bị” and “được” ever lose their lexical meaning?
Before answering the question one by one, let’s take a look at the modal verbs “bị” and “được” to see how they are examined on grammatical site, how they are translated into English.
“bị”: to undergo, to suffer
“được”: to obtain, to receive, to enjoy.
In this case, almost all the English words need direct object, which means they do not need an expletive such as preposition. This feature helps to make a close relationship about meaning, especially about grammar with the two words “bị” and “được” in Vietnamese.
a. Do “bị” and “được” always mark passive voice or passive meaning?
Does a sentence which has “bị” or “được” before its central predicative always become a passive sentence (or passive meaing)? Just remember some popular statements which Vietnamese use, for example:
Tôi đã được đi Sa-pa một lần. (I had a chance to go to Sa-pa once in a life time)
Họ được ăn, được nói, lại được gói mang về. (They are able to eat, to speak, and to wrap up to home).
Nó bị vấp một hòn đá lớn, nên bị ngã rất đau. (He tripped over a big rock and falled down hurtly)…etc.
We can see that these sentences totally does not bring passive meaning, even though they have “bị” or “được”
b. Do “bị” and “được” ever lose their lexical meaning?
To answer this question, let’s try to examine lexical meaning of “bị” and “được” in their normal and common usage to see that they are totally not “expletivelize” like some Vietnamese linguist admitted.
Through some articles, two authors Cao Xuan Hao (2001, p.1-12) and Nguyen Thi Anh (2000, p.36-47) present that: in their way of classification by genre, Ch. N. Li and S.A Thompson (1976) provide that while English and other European languages are “subject-prominent language”, Vietnamese has enough the characteristics of a “topic-prominent language”. Also Li and Thompson stated that passive structure is one of the specific characteristics of “subject-prominent language”, but in “topic-prominent language”, passive voice is consider a exterior, limited phenomenon, rarely founded.
Meanwhile, most Vietnamese linguists think that there are passive sentence and passive voice in Vietnamese. According to them, the markers of passive voice in Vietnamese are “bi” and “duoc” (which have the same position and function to auxiliary verbs “to be” in English). And the manipulation of changing from active voice to passive voice is as follow:
(1) Active voice: a. Mẹ đánh Nam.
Passive voice: b. Nam bị mẹ đánh.
c. Nam bị đánh bởi mẹ.
(2) Active voice: a. Hương giúp Nam.
Passive voice: b. Nam được Hương giúp.
c. Nam được giúp (bởi Hương).
Actually, every language has its own ways to express passive meaning. However, in a subject-prominent language, passive voice is grammaticized by a specific, strictly mandatory form while in Vietnamese, a topic-prominent language, passive meaning does not have such form of expression. The authors who consider “bi” and “duoc” as means to translate passive voice structures in English do not realize that these two predicates are correct-name transitive verbs which any languages do have and they use active form to express the meaning which the authors call “passive”.
Many authors have pointed out that “bị” and “được” used in the sentences 1b, 1c, 2b, 2c, considering the lexical meaning as well as the part of speech and grammatical function, obviously have no difference when they are used in the following sentences:
a. Nam bị một con hai
b. Nam bị sốt
c. Nam bị thua Bình 2-0
d. Nam được giải nhì
e. Nam được đi chơi
f. Nam được giúp Nga
All the words “bị” and “được” used in (2) and (3) are qualified enough to be normal verbs. That means they have enough grammatical characteristics of a verb in general, and of a minor transitive verb in specific.
The two words “bị” and “được” are used as modal verbs when “their direct objects are verbs or verb phrases which have the same subjects” (T. Givon, 1973). About the content, the meaning of “bị” discusses the event displayed by the object as a “disadvantage” event of the subject (as in Nam bị vỡ mất cặp kính rồi for example). By contrast, the meaning of “được” talks about that event as an “advantage” one of the subject (Eg: Tôi được ăn bánh).
2. Other ways to express passive meaning in Vietnamese.
In Vietnamese, there are a lot of words used to express passive meaning. Following is a chart of ways to express passive meaning in Vietnamese.
Means of expressing
anh bảo vệ.
anh dìu dắt.
uy tín gia đình.
So, there are at least 21 words used to show passive meaning in Vietnamese besides “bị” and “được”. Among them there are very popular sentences including thousands different cases which have very clear-cut passive meaning.
Similarities, differences and implication in teaching English for Vietnamese students.
First, I would like to talk about the similarities of passive voice in the two languages, which seem minor compare to the differences. In English, as well as in Vietnamese, passive voice has the same function. It emphasizes the patients of the action and the information given about that action, which it doesn’t care who causes.
The differences seem major.
From the knowledge above we have in our mind the idea that “bị” and “được” in Vietnamese are totally strange to “to be” in English, which intrinsically has a compulsory form. “Bị” and “được” in Vietnamese are not such obligatory to express passive meaning. Take a look at the following examples:
(4) a. Mắt bị kẻ đậm quá. Mắt kẻ đậm quá.
b. Cơm được dọn từ sớm. Cơm dọn từ sớm.
c. Áo đã được may xong. Áo đã may xong.
d. Thư được gửi rồi. Thư gửi rồi.
e. Cái tủ này bị đóng lệch Cái tủ này đóng lệch.
f. Mớ cá ấy bị mua đắt đấy. Mớ cá ấy mua đắt đấy.
We can see that “bị” and “được” can be present, can be absent but the passive meanings are unchanged. However the following examples show that the presence of “bị” and “được” sometimes expresses passive meaning, sometimes expresses active meaning, depending on context they are in.
a. Tôi được sinh ở Hà Nội chứ không phải về trạm hộ sinh huyện.
b. Bác sĩ Bình được mổ hai uỷ viên trung ương.
c. Thầy An được dạy hai bài hát vì giọng thầy khoẻ và ấm lắm.
d. Tôi chụp được ba tấm hình buồng giam ấy để làm tư liệu.
a. Tôi được sinh ra và lớn lên ở hà nội
b. Bác sĩ Bình đã được mổ kịp thời. Bác sĩ Hà đã tự tay mổ cho bạn.
c. Thầy An được dạy hai bài hát để đem dạy lại cho học sinh.
d. Tôi được chụp ba tấm hình ngồi ở ngai của Tự Đức.
By contrast, in English, passive structure always expresses passive meaning and it is mandatory. When we omit “be” in passive sentence, its meaning will be changed.
Eg: Tom was bought a toy car yesterday.
Tom bought a toy car yesterday.
When we omit “was” in the above sentence, the meaning is totally changed
Moreover, while in Vietnamese, “bị” and “được” express the two contrast meaning of the passive voice, one is positive and one is negative; “ to be” in English passive voice does not discriminate between those kind of meaning.
Tôi bị con chó cắn.
Tôi được tặng 1 chiếc xe đạp.
I was bitten by the dog.
I was given a bicycle.
In (1) and (2) we can recognize the positive and negative meaning through the two words “bị” and “được”, but in (3) and (4) we cannot do that based on the auxiliary “was”.
At a result, sometimes Vietnamese students are confused when using “bị” and “được” to translate “to be” in English. For example: students may translate “My computer was repair” in to “Máy tính của tôi “bị” sửa”.
Actually, this is a rare mistake. Students are smart and flexible enough to use “bị” for negative meaning and use “được” for negative meaning.
Besides, Vietnamese students tend to translate “by” into “bởi” when they meet passive structure in an essay.
Eg: I was bought a new skirt by my mother.
Translate: tôi được mua cho một cái váy mới bởi mẹ tôi
In this case, “bởi” makes the translated sentence sound unnatural. Actually, Vietnamese rarely use “bởi” when they express passive meaning. Instead, they put the “actor” right after “bị” or “được” or simply discard it.
Eg: Tôi được mẹ mua cho một chiếc váy mới.
Tôi bị con chó cắn.
Or: Hắn bị bắt quả tang (discard the actor).
This is the common mistake which Vietnamese students often make when they translate English passive structure into Vietnamese. While “bị” and “được” are used to translate “to be”, “bởi” is consider unnatural to translate “by”. It’s the duty of teacher to explain the problem clearly to his/her students so that they can choose when to use “bởi” suitably.
So far we have revised the structure and meaning of passive voice in English and similar ways to express it in Vietnamese. We also discussed the difference between passive voices in English and Vietnamese, which cause the common mistakes that students get when they learn English as a foreign language. In general, the ways to express passive meaning of the two languages are quite different, despite of the minor similarity. In my opinion, the best way to help students to master their passive voice in English is to have a profound knowledge of passive sentence in Vietnamese. Teacher should repeat what students have forgotten and correct the mistakes right on that time so that they can remember and will not make them again.
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