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Science Fiction and the Passive Voice

2019-5-9

The Terminator movies, featuring actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been some of the most popular films ever made. They tell the story of a resistance leader and the robots sent from the future to kill him.

They can also offer a lesson about English grammar. Listen to this line from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

“The first Terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born. It failed.”

Today, we are going to examine that statement as an example of the passive voice. We will also show you how you can use direct and indirect objects with the passive voice.

First, let’s talk about some definitions.

everyday grammar science fiction
everyday grammar science fiction

What is the passive?

English speakers use the passive voice for two main reasons. First, they might not know who did an action. Second, they might not think telling who did an action is important.

At the beginning of this report, you heard the following line in the passive voice.

“The first Terminator was programmed to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born.It failed.”

Why did the speaker use the passive voice? Because the person doing the action was unknown. In other words, no one knows the person (or machine) who programmed the Terminator. In addition, that information might not be important. What is important is that the Terminator is now on a mission!

If the statement were in the active voice, it would be:

Someone programmed the first Terminator to strike at me in the year 1984, before John was born.

Direct and indirect objects

Betty Azar, a grammar expert, notes that English speakers generally use only transitive verbs, or verbs followed by an object, in the passive voice. English speakers do not generally use intransitive verbs, verbs that do not take an object, in the passive voice.

What are objects, you might ask? In grammar, we talk about direct objects and indirect objects. The direct object receives the verb’s action. The indirect object identifies the person who received the action.

Here is an example using James Cameron, who directed the first Terminator movie. You could say, “The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films gave James Cameron an award.”

That sentence is in the active voice. “The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films” is the subject, and “gave” is the verb. The direct object is “an award,” and the indirect object is “James Cameron.”

But let’s say you do not know who gave James Cameron the award. How could you use the passive voice to change the sentence?

Here are two options. You could make the direct object the subject and say, “An award was given to James Cameron.”

Or, you could make the indirect object the subject and say, “James Cameron was given an award.”

In other words, either the direct object or indirect object can take the subject position in a passive voice sentence.

Here is another example, using the statement you heard at the beginning of the report. In the active voice, it might sound something like this:

“Someone gave the Terminator an order.”

“An order” is the direct object and “the Terminator” is the indirect object. In the passive voice, the indirect object can come first, as in, “The Terminator was given an order.” Or, the indirect object can come second, as in, “The order was given to the Terminator.”

Closing thoughts

Today, we explored the passive voice and both direct and indirect objects.

We showed you that both kinds of objects could be the subject in a passive sentence.

The next time you are watching films or reading, try to find examples of the passive voice. Ask yourself if the examples you find fit into the patterns we talked about today. Try to identify the direct and indirect objects.

Be sure to record what you find and make note of questions that you have. With time and practice, you will soon be able to identify the passive voice with ease.

A word of caution, however. You should be careful about using the passive voice in your own writing and speaking. While the passive voice is useful, English speakers often prefer reading and listening to sentences in the active voice. English speakers consider active voice sentences to be clearer.

The passive voice is like a sharp kitchen knife: it is a very useful tool, but one that should be used with great care.

And that’s Everyday Grammar.

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

feature – n. to have or include (someone or something) as an important part

resistance – n. a secret organization that fights against enemy forces who have gained control of a region, country, etc.

program – v. to give (a computer) a set of instructions to perform a particular action : to create a program for (a computer)

pattern – n. something that happens in a regular and repeated way

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