Last week, I answered the first of a set of four tough grammar questions sent to my personal messages box in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member ESL-GUY. The question was this: “Does a post-noun modifier in an active-voice sentence have to be in the active voice, too?”
He presented these examples: 1. “Last night, they watched the movie adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography.” 2. “Movies based on true stories always move us.” I pointed out that Sentence 1 is actually the reduced version of the complex sentence “Last night, they watched the movie that was adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography,” and Sentence 2, the reduced version of the complex sentence “Movies that are based on true stories always move us.”
Through a simplification technique called “reduction of adjective clauses,” Sentence 1 did away with the relative pronoun “that” and the linking verb “was,” resulting in the reduced sentence “Last night, they watched the movie adapted from Gandhi’s best-selling biography.” Sentence 2 similarly did away with “that” and “are,” resulting in “Movies based on true stories always move us.” Both complex sentences became simple sentences.
In such reduced sentences, the main clause retains its voice and no shifting of voice takes place when the subordinate clause gets reduced into a participial phrase. This is because participial modifiers don’t function as true verbs but as adjectives, and in English, only true verbs can undergo changes from active voice to passive voice or vice versa.
Now let’s proceed to ESL-GUY’s second set of questions:
“Set 2: Should the sentences below be recast to make the parts after ‘that’ and ‘which’ active?’
“1.‘I love novels that are set in the medieval period.’
“2. ‘These romantic films, which are often written for the lovelorn, can influence the lives of many.’
“3. ‘Submit the following documents, which can be obtained from …’”
My reply to ESL-GUY:
I am perplexed by your question because in those three sentences, I don’t see any point in wanting to put the parts after ‘that’ and ‘which’ in the active voice. Those are complex sentences and the parts you refer to are actually subordinate clauses where there’s no doer of the action. In Sentence 1, no one is doing the action of setting the novels in the medieval period; in Sentence 2, no one is doing the action of writing those romantic films for the lovelorn; and in Sentence 3, no doer of the action can be discerned from the modifying clause “which can be obtained from…” In such situations, it would be highly problematic and grammatically abstruse to render the parts after “that” and “which” in the active voice.
Indeed, when a doer of the action is not evident or is unknown or uncalled for in a relative clause, the only voice possible for that clause is the passive voice, and the only form that the clause can take is as an agentless passive phrase—what you referred to as a “short passive”—introduced by the relative pronoun “that” and a linking verb. It would be extremely foolhardy to attempt recasting such clauses in the active voice—unless you can provide a contextually acceptable actor for the action in the subordinate clause and be able to revise the construction of the complex sentence without doing violence to its sense.
You will find, too, that subordinate clauses of the kind you presented are the ones that easily lend themselves to being reduced into post-noun modifiers by the dropping of the relative pronoun “that” and the linking verb. For instance, the complex sentence “I love novels that are set in the medieval period” readily gets reduced to “I love novels set in the medieval period,” where “set in the medieval period” becomes the participial post-noun modifier of “novels.”
(To be concluded next week)
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