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Running head: PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 1

Passive Voice in English and Vietnamese – A Contrastive Analysis

Student: Nguyễn Long Quốc

Class: 4B06

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

University of Education
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 2

Abstract

How do you translate the simple sentence “Mary is taken to the zoo by her mother” into

Vietnamese? Many English learners do the translation like this: “Mary được dẫn đi sở thú bởi

mẹ cô ấy”. Do you think that sounds natural to Vietnamese ears in daily conversations?

Absolutely not. Unnaturalness is one of the most common mistakes that the majority of English

learners, and even some advanced ones, make as translating passive-meaning sentences from

English into Vietnamese. In order to help learners overcome those problematic translations, I

have done some research on the passive voice in the two languages, English and Vietnamese.

The research has three main parts. In the first part, some general descriptions of passive voice

in each of the language will be made to give readers certain background information about this

interesting language phenomenon. In the second part, several contrastive points will be

performed to explore the causes of mistakes often made. In the last one, a number of wrong

translations-to-avoid will be introduced, and then some implications for teaching as well as

suggestions for translating passive-meaning sentences from English to Vietnamese will be done

so as for learners to achieve good language transference.


PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 3

Definition

“The passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the subject receives the action of a

transitive verb” (“English passive voice”, 2009). For example, the sentence “I was punished” is

called a passive voice because the subject “I” receives the action of the verb “punish”, getting

punishment.

Passive voice in English

Usage

The passive voice is used more often in writing than in speaking. However, there are

some particular cases in which the passive voice is employed, especially when:

 The role of the receiver is more important than that of the doer. For instance, in “the child

was struck by the bike”, people will pay more attention to the child’s health condition

than to the bike.

 People do not want to talk about who does the action. In the sentence “the vase was

broken”, the performer of breaking the vase is concealed, but the message of “the

broken vase” is still transferred. The doer may be afraid of some punishment or

compensation.

 The performer is not important, not known or known by many people because it is too

popular. For instance, the sentence “my house was robbed last night” does not mention

the doer of the action as no one knows who the robber is. Or in “Bill Clinton was elected

president”, everyone knows that the performers are the American citizens. (“English

passive voice”, 2009)

 We want to put more emphasis on the main point of the sentence. For example, the

passive voice “the poor should not be taxed by the legislature” focuses more on the point
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 4

– the poor. The active voice “the legislature should not tax the poor” somehow

diminishes the sentence’s essence. (Grinker, 1994)

Structure

The general structure of English passive voice is “be + past participle”. Here is the table

of 12 kinds of passive voice corresponding with 12 main tenses:

Table 1

12 kinds of passive voice corresponding with 12 tenses

Tense Structure Example

Simple Present am/is/are + Past Participle (P.P) He is taken to the zoo.

S. Present Continuous am/is/are + being + P.P He is being taken to the zoo.

Simple Past was/were + P.P He was taken to the zoo.

Past Continuous was/were + being + P.P He was being taken to the zoo.

Present Perfect has/have + been + P.P He has been taken to the zoo.

P. Perfect Continuous has/have + been+ being + P.P He has been being taken to the zoo.

Past Perfect had + been + P.P He had been taken to the zoo.

Past Perfect Continuous had + been + being + P.P He had been being taken to the zoo.

Simple Future will + be + P.P He will be taken to the zoo.

Future Continuous will + be + being + P.P He will be being taken to the zoo.

Future Perfect will + have + been + P.P He will have been taken to the zoo.

Future Perfect will + have + been + being + P.P He will have been being taken to the

Continuous zoo.
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 5

Those are the 12 main structures of the passive voice. In English, there are some

special ones that people who study this language should pay a close look to:

 The first one is the double passive voice in which there are two passive-meaning parts.

An example of this kind is the sentence “The paper is expected to be finished by

Monday”.

 The second one is the structure “It is said that …”. This kind of passive voice requires a

particular translation into Vietnamese to achieve correctness and naturalness.

 The third one is passive causatives. Have…cut in the sentence “I have my hair cut” is an

instance of this kind.

Passive voice in Vietnamese

Usage

In Vietnamese, there is some controversy of whether passive voice exists or not.

However, the passive meaning does . Therefore, the term “passive voice” can still be used so

as for things to be synchronized and easier to understand. In this paper, I will not go into details

about the controversy, but will only describe some background information about the passive

voice.

Vietnamese people do not often use passive voice in their daily lives, but many writers

do use it in their works. Some cases in which the Vietnamese need to use the passive voice are

that:

 They want to emphasize the results of something. For example, in “Hàng nghìn người bị

giết trong trận động đất” (thousands of people were killed in the earthquake), the result

“hàng nghìn người” (thousands of people) is emphasized.

 The writer or the speaker wants to keep the subject of the two clauses the same . One

instance is that “Nó phải học rất chăm chỉ mới được mời làm việc cho công ty kia đấy!”
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 6

(he made a lot of efforts, so he was invited to work for that company) has the same

subject due to the use of the passive voice “được mời”.

 They do not know who the performer is. In the sentence “Hôm qua nhà đó bị cướp” (that

house was robbed last night), no one knows who the robber is. (“Câu chủ động”, 2009)

Structure

The passive voice in Vietnamese is often expressed and recognized by the two words

“được” and “bị”. Therefore, the structure can be drawn out like this: “được/bị” + verb

(unchanged forms). An example can be found in the sentence “Nó bị phạt” (he is punished).

However, there are some cases that the two words do not perform passive meanings: “Nó

được gặp thủ tướng” (he has met the prime minister), or “Nó bị té” (she fell). The instances here

demonstrate active voice, not the passive one.

Passive voice with the word “được” is used when people want to mention positive

meanings : “Nó được cô giáo khen” (She is complimented by the teacher). On the other hand,

passive voice with the word “bị” is used when people want to mention negative aspects: “Nó bị

đánh” (He is hit).

Nevertheless, not all passive meanings are marked with the two words above. There are

some kinds of special passive voice in which some sentences still have passive meanings

without any of the two words. For example, “Mặt tô đậm quá” (The face is heavily made up), and

“Anh sinh ở đâu?” (Where were you born?) are two passive-meaning sentences without

“được/bị”.

The contrast between English and Vietnamese Passive Voice

As we can see from the descriptions above, the usages of the passive voice in the two

languages are quite similar. The thing that matters here is not when the voice is used. It is the

differences in forms of the languages that cause incorrect translations for the learners.
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 7

Differences in forms

The difference in language origins marks a big gap between English and Vietnamese as

well as their passive voice forms. Below is a table of some contrastive points:

Table 2

Contrastive points between English and Vietnamese passive voice

Criteria English Vietnamese

Language family Indo-European Austro-Asiatic

Language type Inflectional Non-Inflectional

Structure be + past participle “được” + verb: positive meanings

The forms of "to be" and the verbs “bị” + verb: negative meanings

change based on the subjects and No changes are made in the forms

the tenses. Neither positive nor of both “được/bị” and the verbs.

negative meanings mark any

changes.

Examples He was punished yesterday. Nó được khen : positive meaning

(be  was; punish  punished) (no changes)

It will be sent to you soon. Hoa bị la : negative meaning

(be  be; send  sent) (no changes)

They are awarded a big trophy. Tối qua nhà đó bị trộm : negative

(be  are; award  awarded) meaning (no changes)

Moreover, Vietnamese people do not often use the passive voice, but usually change it into the

active voice. For example, “Mary is taken to the zoo by her mother” should not be translated into

“Mary được dẫn đi sở thú bởi mẹ”, but “Mẹ dắt Mary đi sở thú”. Or even when the passive voice
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 8

is used, the word order in Vietnamese is different from that in English. For instance, the

sentence above should be translated into “Mary được mẹ dẫn đi sở thú” (often found in written

Vietnamese), not “Mary được dẫn đi sở thú bởi mẹ”. As a result, we can see that the

Vietnamese structure of the passive voice is “S + được/bị + O + verb” rather than “S + be + past

participle + by O” as in English. The “O” here is the object, which is optional. Therefore, it is

advised not to translate word by word from one language into another and vice versa.

Furthermore, in Vietnamese, people do not use double passive voice or passive causatives as

in English.

Consequently, the big differences between English and Vietnamese passive voice forms

and the complication of Vietnamese one have made many English learners find it difficult to

have good translations.

Some Incorrect Translations:

According to my recent survey of translating some passive-meaning sentences from

English into Vietnamese on 60 Vietnamese students from different English levels: pre-

intermediate (20 people), intermediate (20 people) and advanced (20 people), many students

still make incorrect translations. Here is the content of the survey, 5 English sentences:

Translating these sentences into Vietnamese:

1. Where were you born?

2. Mary is taken to the zoo by her mother.

3. This paper is expected to be finished by Monday.

4. It is said that he is a good student.

5. He has his hair cut.


PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 9

And here is the table of results of students’ translations:

Table 3

The results of students’ translations

Question

Number Number Number Number Number Total

Level 1 2 3 4 5

Pre-Intermediate 20% I 85%I 100%I 60%I 90%I 71%I

(20 students) 80% C 15%C 0%C 40%C 10%C 29%C

Intermediate 15%I 60%I 85%I 45%I 55%I 52%I

(20 students) 85%C 40%C 15%C 55%C 45%C 48%C

Advanced 5%I 0%I 50%C 10%I 0%I 13%I

(20 students) 95%C 100%C 50%I 90%C 100%C 87%C

Total 13.33%I 48.33%I 78.33%I 38.33%I 48.33%I 45%I

(60 students) 86.67%C 51.67%C 21.67%C 61.67%C 51.67%C 55%C

Note. I = Incorrect, and C = Correct.

The table above shows that all groups of students make mistakes as translating English

passive-meaning sentences into Vietnamese. The pre-intermediate students (whose TOEIC

scores are around 300) make most mistakes (71%), intermediate ones (whose TOEIC scores

are around 500) have less incorrect translations (52%), and advanced students (seniors of

English Department, HCMC University of Education) get the least wrong answers (only 13%).
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 10

We can also see that the sentence number 3 (double passives) seems to be the most difficult

one (with 78.33% of 60 students getting incorrect translations), and that the sentence number 1

(when were you born) is too easy to “trap” more than 13.33 % of the students. In general, nearly

half (45%) of all the students have problematic translations. Here are some examples of

students’ wrong translations:

1. When were you born? (students’ translation: bạn được sinh ra vào ngày nào?: not natural)

2. Mary is taken to the zoo by her mother (Mary được dẫn đi sở thú bởi mẹ cô ấy: not natural)

3. This paper is expected to be finished by Monday (Bài này được mong đợi được hoàn thành

trước thứ Hai: not natural)

4. It is said that he is a good student (Nó được nói là anh ta là một học sinh giỏi: not natural)

5. He has his hair cut. (Anh ta tự cắt tóc mình: wrong translation).

Some Suggestions for Better Translations

To translate English passive-meaning sentences into Vietnamese, follow these

suggested steps (for some typical cases):

 Read the sentence and decide whether it has positive or passive meaning. If the idea is

positive, then the word “được” should be used. On the other hand, if the meaning is

negative, use the word “bị”.

 If the English sentence does not fit the usages of Vietnamese passive voice mentioned

above, change it into the active voice.

 Translate the other parts of the sentence.

 Read some suggested translations for several kinds of passive voice below:
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 11

Table 4

Suggested translations for some kinds of passive voice

Number English structures Vietnamese translations

1 S + be + past participle change the sentence into active voice or

S + “được/bị” + verb…

2 S + be + past participle + by O change the sentence into active voice or

S + “được/bị” + O + verb..

3 Double passives change the sentence into active voice or just

keep one main passive-meaning part.

4 It is said/told that … Người ta/mọi người nói…

He is said/told that… Nghe nói…

5 Passive causatives: nhờ người + verb…

have/get/…+ things + past participle

For example,

1. “When were you born?”: bạn sinh ngày mấy?

2. “Mary is taken to the zoo by her mother”: Mary được mẹ dẫn đi sở thú (often in writing)/ Mẹ

dẫn Mary đi sở thú (often in speaking).

3. This paper is expected to be finished by Monday: Thứ hai là phải làm xong bài này/ Bài này

cần được hoàn thành trước thứ hai.

4. It is said that he is a good student: Nhiều người nói/Nghe nói nó là học sinh giỏi.

5. He has his hair cut: Nó mới cắt tóc (an exceptive translation of passive causatives); they get

their car fixed: Họ nhờ người sửa xe (normal passive-causative translations).


PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 12

Implications for English teaching and learning of Passive Voice

Some analysis of and contrastive points between English and Vietnamese passive voice

made above have set the stage for the next idea: some implications for English teaching and

learning of the grammatical aspect mentioned.

Firstly, Vietnamese students have a habit of translating nearly word by word from

English into Vietnamese and vice versa, which usually cause them to make a lot of mistakes.

Therefore, this paper is written with the hope of helping them be aware of the differences

between passive voice in English and Vietnamese so that they can use it correctly. For

example, when they need to translate an English passive-meaning sentence into Vietnamese

for their parents or friends, they need to make a natural and correct translation so that it does

not sound strange and difficult to understand.

Secondly, teachers should also help students know that passive voice plays an

important role in English, and sometimes in Vietnamese, and it is expressed in various forms.

This will help students recognize the passive voice more easily and have correct transference.

For instance, in the sentence “I get my car fixed”, though there is no normal structure of passive

voice “be + past participle”, the sentence still has a passive meaning (passive causatives).

Thirdly, I hope that this paper will help students develop their linguistic skills in both

languages. Learning theories is just a way for students to do exercises well, but understanding

about the contrastive points between English and Vietnamese passive voice will give them

deeper and better knowledge.

Finally, this paper will be helpful for teachers and students who like to become

translators. Natural and correct translations will bring them a successful job. Moreover, people

whose native language is English, or those who do not speak English as mother tongue but are

good at it can also get some good information about the passive voice in English and

Vietnamese from this paper, and therefore can communicate with Vietnamese people better.
PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 13

In conclusion, passive voice is an important grammatical point in English and

Vietnamese, but it is expressed differently in the two languages. However, with some

descriptions, contrast, analysis and implications for teaching and learning languages made

above, I hope that this paper can help students and teachers have better knowledge and correct

translations of the passive-meaning sentences. Moreover, learning a foreign language is not

easy at all, especially knowing and mastering all the differences. Thus, learners should try their

best to practice the languages and overcome the confusion and difficulty of the gaps between

English and Vietnamese. And hopefully by reading this paper, the way to achieving that goal will

become a bit shorter.


PASSIVE VOICE IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE – A CONTRASTIVE ANALYSIS 14

Reference List

Câu chủ động và câu bị động. (2009, November 26). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Retrieved December 1st, 2009, from

http://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Câu_chủ_động_và_câu_bị_động

English passive voice. (2009, November 27). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved

December 3rd, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice

Grinker, M.A. (1994). The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good

Writing. Retrieved December 5th, 2009, from

http://www.kentlaw.edu/academics/lrw/grinker/LwtaPassive_Voice.htm