A SET of four tough but very instructive grammar questions was sent to my personal messages box in Jose Carillo’s English Forum recently by a member who goes by the username ESL-GUY. The questions are rather advanced and need extensive analysis, so I’ll be answering them by set starting with the first one:
“Set 1: Does a post-noun modifier in an active-voice sentence have to be in the active voice, too? Take the following sentences:
“1. ‘Last night, they watched the movie adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography.’
“2. ‘Movies based on true stories always move us.’
“I believe that all the participial modifiers in the two sentences above are short passives (i.e., without agents). I’m not sure, though, whether the shift in voice is justified.”
My reply to ESL-GUY:
Before going into the matter of voice and short passives, let’s first analyze the two sentences. Each is actually a so-called “reduced” version of a complex sentence, with an active-voice main clause (the independent clause) and a passive-voice subordinate clause (the dependent clause).
Sentence 1 is the reduced version of the complex sentence “Last night, they watched the movie that was adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography,” where “they watched the movie” is the main clause and “that was adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography” the subordinate clause. This subordinate clause has been whittled down into an adjective phrase—a structurally simpler, more concise grammatical form—by doing away with the subordinating conjunction “that” and the linking verb “was.” The result is the reduced sentence “Last night, they watched the movie adapted from Ghandi’s best-selling biography,” where the subordinate clause has become the participial phrase “adapted from Ghandi’s best-selling biography.”
Likewise, Sentence 2 is the reduced version of the complex sentence “Movies based on true stories always move us,” where “Movies…always move us” is the main clause and “that are based on true stories” the subordinate clause. As in Sentence 1, the subordinate clause has been whittled down into an adjective phrase by doing away with “that” and “are,” resulting in the reduced sentence “Movies based on true stories always move us.” Here, the subordinate clause has become the participial phrase “based on true stories” modifying “movies.”
The whittling down process that both sentences have undergone is what’s called the “reduction of adjective clauses,” which converts a complex sentence into a single-clause, more concise sentence—in short, a simple sentence: “Last night, they watched the movie adapted from Ghandi’s best-selling biography.” “Movies based on true stories always move us.”
Now we can now answer ESL-GUY’s first question: “Does a post-noun modifier in an active-voice sentence have to be in the active voice, too?”
The answer is that the question doesn’t apply here. No shifting of voice takes place when a subordinate clause introduced by “that” followed by a linking verb is reduced to an adjective phrase. This is because the post-noun modifier formed by that reduction process is a participial modifier. Recall that only true verbs can undergo changes in voice, and that participial modifiers are verbals that don’t function as true verbs but as adjectives.
ESL-GUY is correct, of course, that participial modifiers are short passives or agentless passives. Their defining characteristic is that they omit or do away with the doer of the action. This is obviously the case with the participial phrases “adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography” and “based on true stories,” as both have no actors or doers of the action.
In closing, let me reiterate that no voice shift whatsoever is involved when a subordinating clause is reduced into a short passive. In such cases, only the main clause of the complex sentence has voice—the active voice—and the main clause retains that voice even when its subordinate clause gets reduced into a short passive.
(To be continued next week)
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