Pop quiz: Winston Churchill uses passive voice

The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Prolonged cheers.)

Winston Churchill 1940

Active voice: People owed gratitude. (many owed so much…)
Passive voice: Gratitude was owed by people. (so much was owed…)

Revised sentence, using active voice:

Never in the field of human conflict did so many owe so much to so few.

Question: Why did Churchill choose the passive voice in this sentence?

ANSWER

SVO vs SVC

S V  O
SUBJECT VERB OBJECT
The ant carries a kernel of corn.
S V  C
SUBJECT VERB COMPLEMENT
The ant appears industrious.

When students encounter Subject+Verb+Object and Subject+Verb+Complement sentences for the first time, they can have trouble telling the two apart.

Here is a test.

Change each sentence into passive voice, and see what happens.

Corn is carried by the ant. (CORRECT)
Industrious is appeared by the ant. (INCORRECT)

Subject-Verb-Object sentences can be turned into passive voice sentences.

Subject-Verb-Complement sentences can’t.

Source:
Grammar for English Language Teachers 2nd edition by Martin Parrott, p 301.

AND SEE:
William J. Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method – all posts
SVO v. SVC
Class notes X-1-2-3
5 + 2: the 7 ‘canonical’ English sentences
10 basic sentence patterns in the English language
SM’s sophisticated SVOO sentence
DT’s astute observation (reflexive pronouns)

Bird by bird

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott