thread: 2011-02-07 : Grammatical Voices

On 2011-02-07, edheil wrote:

I will not argue with you, ever, on how to write good game rules. :)

Mood and voice are orthogonal.  You can change mood and keep the voice the same, or change voice and keep the mood the same.  (And both are orthogonal to tense—you can keep mood and voice the same and change the tense, and vice versa)

Indicative, active:
He wrote the rules.

Indicative, passive:
The rules were written.

Subjunctive, active:
You insisted that he write the rules.

Subjunctive, passive:
You insisted that the rules be written.

Imperative, active:
Write the rules!

Imperative, passive:
Be written, O Rules.  (OK, passive imperatives are kind of rare because of clashing semantics.  If you use a passive imperative you are raising the question of how somebody could obey you by having something happen to *them*.  It's kind of a paradoxical construction, but grammatically legit.)

That's the way Indo-European languages tend to chop it up anyway—one axis of variation is whether the subject is the agent or patient of the verb, and another axis of variation is whether you're stating a fact (indicative), expressing a possibility or preference or indirect command (subjunctive), or giving a direct command (imperative).

I know there are languages which don't have the active/passive voice distinction the way we do (ergative languages, for example, chop agency/patiency and subject/oblique up in a very different way than we do), and moods vary even within Indo-European languages (we barely mark the subjunctive mood anymore, whereas ancient Greek had a fourth mood, called the "optative", which did some of the things we and the Romans use the subjunctive for).

So it's kind of a parochial distinction.  But there it is!

All the ways that most Indo-European languages vary are:

* mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive...)
* tense (present, past, future) and/or aspect (e.g. simple present, present progressive, present perfect)
* voice (active, passive, which may or may not be distinguished from a "reflexive" or "middle" voice, where the agent and patient are the same)
* number (singular, plural, sometimes dual)
* person (first, second, third)

Sometimes you also get things like politeness level, "you" vs "thou"—that kind of thing.

In heavily inflected languages, some or all of these may be reflected in the form of the verb, leading to pages-long charts of verb forms!  In not-very-inflected languages like English, most of these distinctions are made by adding on extra words.

Whew!  How's that?


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