Home/Index of Chapters
©Damen, 2015


Chapter 18

RULE 1: The passive voice turns the action of a verb form back on the subject (or thing modified).

RULE 2: Latin uses -r- as the most common indicator of the passive voice in present tenses.

RULE 3: Passive verb forms expect agents (instead of direct objects).

I. Grammar

A. The English Passive Voice

In English, most passive verbs utilize some form of "to be" in combination with a passive verb form. For example, I am praised is passive, whereas I am praising is active ("praising" is an active verb form). The best—and the only certain—way to determine whether a verb in English is active or passive is to ask if the subject is acting (active) or being acted upon (passive).

The presence of a "(personal) agent" can help to indicate whether a verb form is active or passive. For instance, if a phrase like "by the teacher" (meaning that the teacher did something) can be added to a verb form and have it make sense, then the form is passive, e.g. I am praised by the teacher vs. I am praising "by the teacher" (which makes no sense because an agent cannot be appended to an active verb). Conversely, if a verb form can take a direct object, the verb form is active, e.g. I am praising the teacher. Direct objects make no sense after passive forms: I am praised "the teacher."

B. The Formation of the Passive Voice in Latin

Latin makes a verb in the present system passive by adding passive personal endings:

First Person -r -mur
Second Person -ris -mini
Third Person -tur -ntur

Thus, Latin verb endings in the present system indicate not only the person and number of the verb—you can now see that up until this chapter we have been using only the active endings—but also its voice, i.e. whether the verb is active or passive. Note that r shows up in all but one of these endings. Its presence clearly marked the passive to the Roman ear, in much the same way that the addition of "to be" (with a passive verb form) signals the passive to ours.

Passive endings are attached to a present-tense verb base no differently from active ones. Nor do they affect tense signs or thematic vowels, with one exception -beris (future second-person singular). Note that the second-person singular ending -ris has an alternate form, -re, which creates a passive form identical to the active infinitive. Context will determine whether a main verb ("you are X-ed") or an infinitive ("to X") is required.

It's best to learn all present-tense passive forms at once, rather than divide them up the way Wheelock does (third-, third -io and fourth-conjugation passive forms are included in Chapter 21). Thus, I expect you to learn now the present passive forms included in Wheelock's Chapter 21 (p. 97). It may help to see how the present passive system as a whole works by looking at the synopsis of verbs at the back of Wheelock (p. 388, top three columns).

Finally, note the passive infinitive endings: -ari (first conjugation), -eri (second), -i (third and third -io) and -iri (fourth). These are equivalent to the English present passive infinitive,"to be X-ed."

C. Syntax: Agents

A good general rule to remember is that active verbs take direct objects, but passive verbs do not. That is, "I praise" can take after it an accusative direct object: "I praise my teacher." Conversely, the passive form of the same verb "I am praised" cannot take a direct object. Instead, passives expect an "agent" which specifies by whom the action was done: "I am praised by my teacher." English agents are introduced by the preposition "by."

Latin uses the ablative case to express the agent used with a passive verb form and makes a distinction which English does not: if the agent is a person, "by" is expressed in Latin with the preposition a/ab + an ablative object and the construction is called "personal agent." If, however, the agent is not a person, the ablative case is still used but without a/ab and the construction is called "means" (or "impersonal agent"). When the ablative represents a personal agent, you must refer to the construction that way if asked "what case and why." This allows us to distinguish between when ab means "by" (personal agent) and when it means "away from" (object of the preposition). Also, when you correctly identify a personal agent, you show that you know the voice of the verb form to which the agent is attached.

D. Worksheet

Click here for a worksheet on the formation and usage of passive verb forms in the present-tense verb system.

II. Vocabulary

a/ab: Takes an ablative object. This preposition is the opposite of ad with which it is all too easily confused. A/Ab means "away from," versus de "down from" and e/ex "out from/of").

etiam: = et + iam (literally "even now/then").

lego: This is the base verb of the compounds intellego ("choose between," Chapter 15) and neglego ("not [nec] choose," Chapter 17). Lego forms its perfect by lengthening the root vowel: lêg-. The perfect passive lectum = leg- + -tum. When the Romans applied this verb to literature and books—or, more precisely, scrolls—lego took on the sense "read" (literally, "choose" a scroll). This, in turn, rendered English derivatives like "legible" and "lecture."

moveo: The perfect, môvi, is formed by lengthening the root vowel. It replaces the predicted but unpronounceable *movui.

terreo: The opposite of timeo. Remember that timid people "fear" and "frightening" people terrify.

videor: The passive of video has both a literal sense ("be seen") and a figurative one ("seem"). Both senses take a predicate nominative ("be seen as X," "seem [to be] X"). The literal sense, however, can take a personal agent ("be seen by X"), whereas the figurative sense often takes a complementary infinitive ("seem to X").


Home/Index of Chapters


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.