Passive Voice:
How is it Interpreted
Published in the Proceedings of the 2001 RID Conference
Carol C. Tipton, Ed.D., CSC, CI, CT
The passive voice structure occurs in all areas of discourse in the English language. If
interpreters are unable to recognize the passive voice in its various forms, the rendering
of a passive voice structure into ASL might show the direct object performing the action
instead of receiving it. For example, "Interpreters are expected to arrive on time," could
be conveyed as "Interpreters expect to arrive on time." This article will describe
progressively more linguistically complex forms of passive voice usage with guidelines
on how each is best conveyed in ASL.
Passive Voice Defined
On the sentential level, passive voice is a verb inflection in which the perceived
subject, instead of performing the action of the verb, receives the action of the verb. The
grammatical subject, therefore, functions as a direct object. For example, in the sentence,
"The dog was bitten by the cat," the dog is passive. The cat is performing the action, and
the dog receives the action.
A passive voice utterance contains the following components:
Direct Object/Grammatical Subject or Noun (mandatory)
BE verb, such as am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been (optional)
Past Participle (mandatory)
The word by (optional)
The Agent or Functional Subject/Performer of the Action (optional)
Passive Voice Usage
The English language is replete with passive voice usage, which can be seen in the
following situations or for the following reasons:
When the subject is unknown.
Our house was papered last night.
When the subject is relatively unimportant.
In school we are taught to spell correctly.
The breathing tubes of the comatose woman will be removed this afternoon.
To avoid putting someone on the defensive, avoiding "you" statements.
(to the janitor) My wastebasket has not been emptied for three days instead of
You haven't emptied my wastebasket for three days.
To make institutional or policy statements.
Parking is permitted in all metered spaces.
To avoid taking personal responsibility
The report was inadvertently misfiled instead of
I accidentally filed the report in the wrong location.
How to Interpret Passive Voice
The passive voice structure takes many forms in the English language, many of which
will be described subsequently. The first step in effectively interpreting passive voice is
to recognize it when it occurs. Failure to do so often results in showing the direct object
performing the action instead of receiving it.
Once a passive voice utterance is recognized, the techniques described here can be
used to ensure that the object receives the action of the verb. Depending on the
complexity of the utterance, these techniques may be used in combination or alone. After
each technique, an example will be given, followed by a gloss of a suggested rendering
into ASL*. This suggested rendering represents only one of several possible
interpretations into ASL. Limited space precludes listing more than one. (*note: The
author recognizes that because ASL does not have a standard written form, attempting to
depict ASL by glosses is limited at best. Glosses are given from the perspective of a right
handed signer.)
When the agent is specified, usually with a "by" phrase, show that agent
performing the action.
Example: The house was purchased by a young couple.
ASL: house, who buy?(RQ) couple young
Put the object in sign space as a classifier and show the action happening to it.
Example: That teacher is not liked.
ASL: that teacher 1-CL(left) like? (the sign should move from the body toward
the 1-CL accompanied by eye gaze) not
If the interpreter signs, teacher not like, it appears that the teacher does not like
something, as if the teacher is performing the action, instead of conveying the
meaning that some other entity does not like the teacher.
When the performer of the action is not specified, create a logical agent based on
Example: The two boys were arrested yesterday.
ASL: know boys two-of-them? yesterday police arrest
When the performer of the action is not specified, allow the signer to become an
unspecified agent, performing the action.
Example: That pill must be taken with water.
ASL: that pill, do? must pop-in-mouth, water drink swallow
Restructure the sentence.
Example: The car was sold to me.
ASL: car, me buy
Passive Voice Structures and Suggested Interpretations into ASL
Various passive voice forms, starting with the more obvious and moving into more
complex, will now be listed and suggested renderings into ASL given.
Standard Passive, which includes: Noun + Be Verb + Past Participle + BY +
Example: Tom Sawyer was written by Mark Twain.
ASL: book title Tom Sawyer, who write? Mark Twain
Example: The cars were washed by the tenth grade class.
ASL: cars 3-CL+++, 10th grade class wash
This structure can be interpreted fairly easily into ASL because it states the object
first and can thereby follow the object-subject-verb structure of ASL.
Standard Passive without the "BY" phrase
In these utterances the agent, or who is performing the action, is unknown.
Example: Children should never be spanked.
ASL: child (in sign space lower than the signer) spank (show the signer
performing the action) should? Never!
Example: You are expected to keep your room clean.
ASL: your room, keep clean, must (restructure)
Example: The parents of the ADHD children were interviewed.
ASL: children point-left have ADHD, their parents 2h5CL (in line slightly to the
right) interview+++ (move from left to right down the line with eye gaze)
Standard Passive without the "Be" phrase
In this structure two sentences are merged into one, and the "be" verb is omitted.
Example: The actor was chosen for that role. He had little previous experience.
The actor chosen for that role had little previous experience.
In rendering such a sentence into ASL, the interpreter may need to expand it back
to the two original sentences.
ASL: actor 1-CL (left hand) choose (originate the sign at the classifier) for? that
role (right). point-toward-classifier have much experience? no, little
Example: Students allowed to drive can park in the upper lot.
ASL: some student (face left) permit (direct it toward the students) drive. they
park where? upper level park+++
Example: Opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of its
ASL: this program/show, people express different++ opinions. sponsors agree?
not always
Passive Gerunds
A gerund is a verb form which functions as a noun.
Example: The child enjoys being read to by her mother.
ASL: mother book-open story+++, girl/child sit-beside watch enjoy
Example: He hates being teased.
ASL: boy 1-CL tease (directed toward the classifier) hates (a number of different
signs could be used here but the one chosen should be directed toward the
location in sign space where the sign for "tease" originated)
Example: She wants to be asked to the prom.
ASL: Girl point-left want someone invite (originating where the girl is located in
sign space) go-to prom (move right)
Passive Participial Adjectives
A past participle can function as an adjective preceding a noun, e.g., lost boys,
chosen people, stolen car. If an adjective describes a state of being, e.g.,
"frightened" means the same as "afraid", then it is a normal adjective and can be
handled as such by an interpreter. If, however, it describes a state of becoming or
of the noun being acted upon, it is a passive adjective and must be handled by
expansion and deliberate use of space.
Example: Leah was the unloved wife of Jacob.
ASL: Leah, 1-CL (left) her husband Jacob love her? not
Example: We stored the donated items in the garage.
ASL: different+++ things (2 hands) people give+++ (directed toward the
signer), put/store where? garage
Example: Theirs was an arranged marriage.
ASL: two-of-them marry how? his mother father (left) her mother father (right)
meeting discuss decide two-of-them marry
Deep Structure Passives.
Occasionally an utterance can only be recognized as passive by analyzing its
deeper meaning because the surface structure does not follow the standard form
for passives. Examine the following example:
John is eager to please.
John is easy to please.
In the first example John is performing the action of pleasing while in the second
others are performing the action of pleasing him. The first one is active, and the
second passive. Consider the following examples:
Pat is interested.
Chris is excited.
Lee is bored.
Pat is interesting.
Chris is exciting.
Lee is boring.
On the surface it would appear that the left-hand column could contain passive
structures because of the presence of a past participle in each sentence. However,
each example to the left describes how that person feels, and each past participle
functions as a regular adjective. The right-hand examples describe how others,
who are not specified, feel about each person. These examples need to be treated
like passives in order to be interpreted accurately into ASL. In ASL each
sentence might be rendered as follows:
Pat is interested .
Pat is interesting.
Chris is excited.
Chris is exciting.
Lee is bored.
Lee is boring.
Pat eager
Pat 1CL(left) interest(show the sign
moving toward the classifier)
Chris excited (use body shift to take on
Chris’ demeanor)
Chris influence-me, excite (meaning “I am
excited by Chris.”)
Lee bore
Lee point bore person (eyegaze toward Lee)
Review and Conclusion
The following paragraph contains examples of passive voice usage. Try to identify
each passive utterance and determine how it would best be conveyed in ASL. The
paragraph will be repeated with passive structures italicized, and a possible interpretation
for each given.
"CEUs are awarded based on contact hours attended. This means that participants
must sign in to each activity, verifying that they attended the hours indicated. For
most activities, participants will be awarded .1 CEU for every contact hour of
participation documented by the Sponsors. One-half credit will be awarded to
those who attended at least half...of an activity." (Diana Macdougall, "CMP
Update", RID Views, February, 1999, p. 22)
"CEUs are awarded based on contact hours attended. This means that
participants must sign in to each activity, verifying that they attended the hours
indicated. For most activities, participants will be awarded .1 CEU for every
contact hour of participation documented by the Sponsors. One-half credit will
be awarded to those who attended at least half...of an activity."
CEUs are awarded
ASL: CEU(close to body) give(away from
body) The signer becomes the unspecified
..hours attended
ASL: hours you/they attend Add a logical
..hours indicated
ASL: hours you/they put-down Add a
logical agent.
participants will be awarded
ASL: participants will receive Restructure.
documented by Sponsors
ASL: sponsors document/put-down Show
the agent performing the action.
one-half credit will be awarded
ASL: 1/2 credit(close to body) give(from
body) will The signer becomes the
unspecified agent.
Interpreters need to be aware of the various forms that the passive voice structure can
take in English in order to accurately render the meaning into ASL. By studying the
examples given above and practicing with material found elsewhere, interpreters can
recognize passive voice utterances when they occur while interpreting and be able to
process them in a way which preserves the original meaning.

Passive Voice: How is it Interpreted - NIC-Test-Prep-at