MY two preceding columns answered tough grammar questions sent to my personal messages box in Jose Carillo’s English Forum by member ESL-GUY. The first was, “Does a post-noun modifier in an active-voice sentence have to be in the active voice, too?” and the second, which I’ll condense here for clarity, was “Should sentences like ‘I love novels that are set in the medieval period’ be recast to make the parts after ‘that’ or ‘which’ active?”
These two questions can’t be easily answered because they require a clear understanding of the structure of complex sentences and of the whittling down process in English grammar known as “reduction of adjective clauses,” which converts subordinate clauses into structurally simpler adjective phrases (http://tinyurl.com/l62xf39). I therefore had to show first how this is done—by dropping the conjunction “that” and the linking verb that connects that clause to the main clause.
Having done this, I answered both questions in the negative. To the first question, I explained that 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 a participial phrase that acts as a post-noun modifier doesn’t function as a true verb but as an adjective, and in English, only true verbs have voice, whether active or passive.
To the second question, I said that in a sentence like “I love novels that are set in the medieval period,” it doesn’t make sense to put the parts after “that” in the active voice. That sentence is a complex sentence and the part referred to is actually a subordinate clause where there’s no doer of the action. That clause can therefore only take the passive voice.
Now let’s proceed to ESL-GUY’s third and fourth question:
“Set 3: ‘Does the participle after the preposition ‘after’ in the sentence below cause a shift in voice?
“‘After filling out the required forms, each client is given a reference number.’
“Set 4: ‘What are the cases in which a shift in voice is justified? Can you please give examples?’”
My reply to ESL-GUY:
Yes, there has been a voice shift in that sentence, but it’s incorrect to say that it was caused by the participle “filling out.” That sentence is actually the inverted form of the normal order, passive-voice simple sentence “Each client is given a reference number after filling out the required forms.” Here, the passive voice main clause “each client is given a reference number” is modified by the prepositional phrase “after filling out the required forms.”
We can also recognize that normal order sentence as the reduced form of the complex sentence “Each client is given a reference number after he or she has filled out the required forms,” where the passive-voice main clause is linked by the subordinator “after” to an active-voice subordinate clause.
Now, in answer to the fourth question, this is actually one of the cases in which a shift in voice is possible during the reduction process. When the subordinate clause is in the active voice, as in “he or she has filled out the required forms,” English has a special procedure for reducing that clause into a prepositional phrase without altering its meaning—drop the pronoun and convert the active verb to its progressive form: “Each client is given a reference number after filling out the required form.”
A voice shift is also possible when a complex sentence has an active-voice relative clause, as in “Students who work part-time are often highly motivated to finish college.” In the relative clause “who work part-time,”“who” can be dropped and the verb “work” converted to its progressive form: “Students working part-time are often highly motivated to finish college.” Here, the relative clause “who work part-time”has become the post-noun participial modifier “working part-time.”
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