66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning

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At least three different sub-meanings can be found among passive verbs: stative, dynamic and adjectival

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THE VARIABILITY OF PASSIVE VERB MEANING

The importance of English passive verbs is considered within this blog in the posts 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs,  69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2 and 113. Verbs That Cannot Be Passive. The last of these, along with the post 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1, also has much to say about what might be called the central meaning of passive verbs. This meaning, however, has some subdivisions − slight variations found in different verbs and different contexts. The aim here is to examine three different sub-meanings that passive verbs can express.

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DYNAMIC AND STATIVE VERB MEANING

Dynamic meaning belongs to actions (doing), where there is energy and change, while stative meaning belongs to states (being), where there is undisturbed continuity. Some English verbs have mostly dynamic/action meaning, e.g. TAKE, LAUGH and COMPARE; some are mostly stative, e.g. KNOW, EXIST and REMAIN; while the majority can be either, e.g. SUPPORT, JOIN, RECOGNISE, EXPRESS and STAND (for more on this topic, see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1). Here is the verb SUPPORT used in both ways: 

DYNAMIC ACTIVE

(a) Migrants regularly support their families with remittances from abroad. 

STATIVE ACTIVE

(b) Deep foundations support most tall buildings. 

The ability to express either dynamic or stative meaning is particularly associated with the passive rather than the active voice. This is because many verbs are able only in the passive voice to express both meanings. Take the verb EDUCATE. It is hard to see how the active form educates could ever be stative, whereas the passive is educated could easily be either dynamic or stative: 

DYNAMIC PASSIVE

(c) Descartes was educated at a Jesuit college. 

STATIVE PASSIVE

(d) Descartes argued well because he was educated. 

This double meaning found particularly in passive verbs can cause uncertainty in some sentences. Consider this: 

(e) The gates will be locked when the building is closed. 

Does this mean that the locking of the gates will take place at the exact moment when the closing of the building takes place (dynamic meaning), or that the length of time when the gates remain in a locked position will match the period when the building is in a closed state (stative)? Fortunately, such ambiguity can often be prevented by using alternative wording. Sentences like (e) might use while instead of when and the present continuous tense (is being closed) instead of the present simple. Some passives have different following prepositions for dynamic and stative meaning: interested and bored by (dynamic) but interested in and bored with (stative) – see 134. Words with a Variable Preposition.

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ADJECTIVE MEANING

A third meaning that some passive verbs have is mainly associated with adjectives. Consider the underlined adjective in this sentence: 

(f) When the soldiers entered the building, the hostages were free. 

We can tell that free must be an adjective here and not a verb because it occurs after were without an ending. Following BE without an ending is possible only for adjectives and irregular verbs; most verbs need either -ed (or an irregular equivalent), which shows the passive voice, or -ing, which shows the active voice in continuous tenses. Other adjectives spelt the same as verbs include clean, clear, dirty, double, empty, equal, hurt, level, narrow, near, open, slow, suspect and welcome (see 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2 for some grammar problems that they can cause).

What is the difference between were free and the ordinary passive were freed? The first difference is that were free is only stative, whereas were freed could be either dynamic or stative. With a dynamic meaning were freed in (f) would mean that freeing of the hostages started at the moment when the soldiers entered the building, while a stative meaning would say that the hostages were already enjoying freedom before the soldiers’ entry. 

The real question, then, is what the difference is between the adjectival were free and the stative passive were freed. I believe that the passive suggests a recent and/or purposeful beginning of the state, while the adjective says nothing about when or how the state began. Thus, the hostages were freed can be understood to mean that the freeing had taken place shortly before the soldiers’ entry (perhaps because the hostage-takers were afraid), while the hostages were free tells us nothing about when the freeing occurred – indeed the hostages might never have been locked or tied up at all. In the same way, we might say that a sandwich was filled with meat (purposefully put there), but was full of ants (unwanted!). 

Some may wonder how a stative passive differs from a dynamic one put into the present perfect or past perfect tense: how, for example, were freed differs from had been freed. I would suggest that, although both imply an action and a resultant state, the former emphasises the state, the latter the action.

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PASSIVE VERBS WITH ADJECTIVE MEANING

In the examples above, the two types of stative meaning – suggesting or not suggesting a recent or purposeful beginning of the state – are linked with two different language categories, passive verbs and adjectives respectively. However, the vast majority of passive verbs in English do not have a corresponding adjective, and as a result they are themselves sometimes used to express the adjective meaning rather than either of the other two passive verb meanings. The verb CLOSE is a verb of this kind (although there is an adjective with the same spelling, it is not a related adjective, because it has a completely different meaning – “near” – and is pronounced differently, with /s/ at the end instead of /z/). 

Here is how CLOSE might be used with each of the three passive verb meanings: 

DYNAMIC MEANING

(g) Beware of being hit by the gates as they are closed. 

STATIVE MEANING (RECENT COMMENCEMENT)

(h) Gatekeepers are able to go home when the gates are closed. 

STATIVE MEANING (NO INDICATION OF COMMENCEMENT)

(i) When the gates are closed, visitors should contact security. 

Of course I have tried here to construct sentences where the required meaning is the most likely. In everyday English usage, however, there will often be uncertainty about which meaning is intended, or indeed it will not matter.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE (PASSIVE VERB MEANINGS)

To help the above points to be remembered, here are some sentences to think about. The task is to decide whether the underlined verbs have dynamic or stative meaning, and in the latter case to consider which kind of stative meaning is more likely. The kind with no implied recent beginning can be called S1, that with it S2. My own opinions are given afterwards.

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Sentences for Analysis

1. The passive verb form can be interpreted in different ways.

2. Atoms are understood to be made of subatomic particles.

3. It will be seen that demand is not always predictable.

4. The police found the weapon was cleaned of fingerprints.

5. Before a long drive, check that the tyres are properly inflated.

6. The exact procedure is demonstrated in the diagram above.

7. When Einstein died, he was recognised as a genius.

8. After the lecture, students who are confused may ask questions.

9. Adjustment of wing shape enables landing aircraft to be slowed.

10. From the survey responses, customers are known to be unhappy.

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Answers

1. DYNAMIC

2. STATIVE S1 (a general and longstanding understanding among scientists)

3. DYNAMIC

4. STATIVE S2 (Somebody had recently cleaned it. S1 would have had was clean)

5. STATIVE S1 (There is no clue to any recent S2 inflating. Dynamic meaning would need “make sure” instead of “check”)

6. STATIVE S1 (Not dynamic because diagrams do not move; not S2 because a book diagram – suggested by above – is not something recently completed).

7. STATIVE S1 (Einstein’s recognition came before his death, not after it and not shortly before it).

8. STATIVE S2 (implies a state of confusion resulting from a recent lecture).

9. DYNAMIC or STATIVE S2 (S1 meaning is not possible because of “enables”, and anyway would be shown by “slow”).

10. STATIVE S2 (KNOW is nearly always stative; the survey is a recent beginning of the knowing).

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