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Among the five characteristics of a verb (person, number, tense, voice, and mood), the voice of a verb indicates whether the subject of a sentence is doing the action or whether the action is being done to the subject. This definition is a bit simple but it does help the beginning Latin student learn to distinguish the purpose of voice.
Both Latin and English employ voice to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. Luckily, they function similarly in both languages. Since Latin is an inflected language, a change of a verb’s ending indicates the voice of a verb. This means more memorization of endings for the students.
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The English Active Voice
The English Active Voice is used to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. Active Voice is employed when the verb indicates what the subject of a sentence is or does. For example:
John walks down the street.
Mary is a good student.
Notice that in both cases, the verb in each sentence (walks and is) indicates what the subject (John and Mary) is or is doing. Of course, the active voice can be used in all verb tenses to indicate what the subject is, was, or will be or what the subject is doing, was doing, or will do.
Keep in mind that the voice of a verb can be employed using any of the other characteristics of a verb. For example, the active voice can be used with any person (first, second, third), number (singular or plural), tense (present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect), or mood (indicative, subjunctive, imperative) for which a form exists. However, not all forms exist. For example, there is typically no future perfect imperative mood. There is a theoretical one, it is just not considered to be a part of proper English grammar. This fact becomes increasingly apparent to students of Latin who must use distinctive inflections to form the five verb characteristics.
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The Latin Active Voice
The Active Voice in Latin functions similarly to the English Active Voice. However, as Latin is an inflected language, each person, number, tense, and mood of a Latin verb has a distinctive form/verb ending to make its identification possible. For example:
Caesar librum legit.
Caesar is reading a book.
Caesar est rex bonus.
Caesar is a good king.
Notice that in the first sentence, the subject (Caesar) is doing the action (reading). In the second sentence, the verb (is) indicates what the subject (Caesar) is (a good king). Both of these sentences employ Active Voice verbs.
Just like in English, Latin Active Voice verbs can be any person, number, tense, or mood for which a form exists. Again, not all forms exist. For example, there is no future subjunctive mood because the subjective mood already indicates a theoretical situation, something that does not exist or is not happening now, but may one day or may have been or was done in the past. Something that has not happened yet may still happen, so there is no future subjunctive Active Voice verbs. This may seem confusing but it actually reduces the number of inflections that a Latin student must memorize. This is something about which most Latin students feel happy!
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The Active Voice in both English and Latin indicates a subject that either is something or is doing the action in a sentence. Most sentences in both languages are in the Active Voice unless the speaker or writer is trying to emphasize another part of a sentence or avoid a strange construction. In these cases, the passive voice is used instead. Many people believe that the Active Voice presents a stronger voice than the passive and should be used whenever possible, in writing especially. However, the passive voice does make it possible to make writing and speaking more sophisticated than the factual-sounding nature of the more prevalent Active Voice.
Latin Active Voice Verbs: An English Comparison
English and Latin both employ Active and Passive Voice verbs to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. Only Latin has Deponent verbs. These verbs are passive in form but have active meanings. English’s lack of Deponent verbs makes learning them difficult for Latin students.