The Passive Voice of Verbs

English, like German and the Romance languages, but unlike Latin (and Greek, and all the Scandanavian languages) does not have a fully inflected passive system, but relies instead on the use of auxiliary verbs to form compound tenses. This may be why, when the passive voice is first introduced, some students are tempted to use Latin’s compounded tenses rather than the inflected tenses: for example, “The girl will be listened to by the boy” may be translated as puella ā puerō audīta erit rather than as puella ā puerō audiētur. The inflected present passive system (i.e. equivalent to amor, amaris, amatur etc.) has been dropped in the Romance languages; the present passive in French, for example je suis aimé, meaning “I am loved”, corresponds in form to the Latin perfect passive, amatus sum.

Spanish has such a strong preference for the using the third person plural of the active voice rather than a passive construction that me han robado (literally “they have robbed me”) will mean “I have been robbed” even when there is no doubt that only one thief is involved.

The passive equivalent to “The farmer gave the pig a potato” is either “A potato was given to the pig by the farmer” or “The pig was given a potato by the farmer”. The second formulation is not possible in Latin, since no case would be suitable for the potato. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, edd. R. Huddleston & G.K. Pullum, Cambridge (2002) p. 245 observes that “in languages with richer case systems than English, direct and indirect objects are characteristically marked by accusative and dative case respectively. English has lost its earlier dative case, so that the two types of object are somewhat more alike than in such languages. One manifestation of this is seen in the relation between active and passive clauses. In English the subject of a passive can correspond either to active Od [direct object] (Kim was seen by Pat ~ Pat saw Kim) or to active Oi [indirect object] (Kim was given the key by Pat ~ Pat gave Kim the key), but in languages with dative Oi a passive subject normally corresponds only to active Od”.

The second person plural ending -mini is anomalous, and its origin is not fully understood. Since the syllable before -mini is very often long (e.g. amāminī, vidēbāminī, mittēminī), the first i of the ending is therefore a short syllable enclosed between two long syllables, and such word-forms are precluded from dactylic verse, used in well over ninety per cent of Latin poetry. (Occasional exceptions, forms such as daminī, vidēbiminī, mittiminī, might have been used by the hexameter poets, but they did not avail themselves of them.)

Since the present infinitives passive of the third and third i-stem conjugations are marked only by the letter i, particular care is needed to distinguish them from the first person singular of the perfect tense (e.g. capi “to be taken”, cepi “I have taken” [from capio, capere, cepi, captum 3 i-stem]) and the dative singular of third declension nouns (e.g. dūci “to be led” [from duco, ducere, duxi, ductum 3], duci “to the leader” [from dux, ducis masc. 3]). This latter similarity is probably not accidental, since the present infinitive passive seems to have evolved from the dative or locative (see Chapter 15) singular of nouns.

The passive singular present imperative is taught in ancient and medieval grammars as being the same as the active equivalent with -re suffixed (e.g. ama-re, mone-re), rather than as being the same as the present infinitive active. In modern grammars, it is questioned whether the passive imperative forms in -re and -mini are ever found in a passive sense. (For their frequent use with deponent verbs, see Chapter 15.)

The future perfect passive (like its active equivalent [see Chapter 7]) occurs mostly in subordinate clauses, such as will not appear till later chapters. Its forms are given here because this is the most appropriate and convenient place to learn them.

Although timere is transitive (“to be afraid of”) as well as intransitive (“to be afraid”), it is very rarely found in the passive. lupi porcos terrebant “The wolves frightened the pigs” is much more normal than lupi a porcis timebantur. “The wolves were feared by the pigs”. timere can be confusing when the passive voice is first introduced, because the English passive participle “afraid” is misleading. “The pigs had been afraid of the wolf” is simply porci lupum timuerant. Substituting “had feared” for “had been afraid of” will remove the confusion.