Grammatical voice is the expression of relationships between the predicate and nominal functions. The two voices in the English language are the active voice and the passive voice. The following sections discuss the formation and use of the passive voice in English.
Forming the Passive Voice
All forms of the passive voice in English include some form of the verb be followed by a past participle. The following verb chart outlines the verb phrase patterns for the passive voice:
- The packages are delivered. (passive simple present)
- The packages are being delivered. (passive present progressive)
- The packages have been delivered. (passive present perfect)
- The packages have been being delivered. (passive present perfect-progressive)
- The packages were delivered. (passive simple past)
- The packages were being delivered. (passive past progressive)
- The packages had been delivered. (passive past perfect)
- The packages had been being delivered. (passive past perfect-progressive)
Sentences in the passive voice differ from sentences in the active voice in that subject of a passive sentence receives the action of the verb while the direct object of an active sentence receives the action of the verb. For example, the following sentences are active countersentences to the previous passive sentences:
- The postal worker delivers the packages. (active simple present)
- The postal worker is delivering the packages. (active present progressive)
- The postal worker has delivered the packages. (active present perfect)
- The postal worker has been delivering the packages. (active present perfect-progressive)
- The postal worker delivered the packages. (active simple past)
- The postal worker was delivering the packages. (active past progressive)
- The postal worker had delivered the packages. (active past perfect)
- The postal worker had been delivering the packages. (active past perfect-progressive)
Another Passive Auxiliary Verb
Although the verb be is the traditional auxiliary verb used to form the passive voice, many native English speakers also use the verb get when forming passive sentences. For example:
- The cookies were eaten. (be)
- The cookies got eaten. (get)
- My coworker is being disciplined. (be)
- My coworker is getting disciplined. (get)
- The bathroom had been cleaned. (be)
- The bathroom had gotten cleaned. (get)
- Vegetables have been being stolen. (be)
- Vegetables have been getting stolen. (get)
Note that the verb get can only replace the be that directly precedes the past participle. Therefore, while the use of get in have been getting stolen is grammatically possible, the use of get in *have gotten getting stolen is not. (The asterisk * indicates an incorrect example.)
The difference between the use of the verb be and the use of the verb get in the passive voice is, like in most linguistic situations in which multiple forms are possible, a matter of style rather than grammatical correctness with be being more formal and get being less formal. For example, most native English speakers would only ever write was eaten in an academic essay but often say and hear got eaten in casual conversation.
To learn about some commonly cited reasons for avoiding the passive voice, please continue reading on page two.
Avoiding the Passive Voice
Many English grammar books and English grammar teachers proscribe the use of the passive voice, especially in written English but also in spoken English. Some of the more common reasons for avoiding the passive include:
- Using the passive voice results in too much use of the verb be.
- The passive voice intentionally hides the “subject” of the sentence.
- The passive voice results in sentences that are vague, without impact, and without focus.
- Passive sentences are long and hard to follow.
- Using the passive voice is telling not showing.
- The passive voice makes readers feel detached from the story.
- The passive voice is boring.
Some of the arguments against the use of the passive voice are partially legitimate. For example, writing sentences in the passive does require more use of the auxiliary verb be simple because the passive voice in English is formed by some form of the verb be followed by a past participle. But, the English verb system is largely periphrastic and, therefore, results in the use of many auxiliary verbs to form the combinations of the two tenses, four aspects, two voices, and three moods. Implying that an “overuse” of the auxiliary verb be is somehow “incorrect” denies the English verb system its periphrastic Englishness.
Similarly, although some prescriptive grammarians argue that the passive voice results in vagueness, stating that English writers and speakers intentionally hide the “subject” of a sentence with the passive voice is also rather vague. The word subject could refer to the grammatical subject, the semantic subject, or the grammatical agent. The grammatical subject of a sentence is the word, phrase, or clause that performs the action of or acts upon the verb. The semantic subject can be described as “what the sentence is about.” The grammatical agent is “who or what carries out the action of the verb.” Which subject do prescriptivists object to hiding?
The other objections to the passive voice bring up similar issues. For example, active sentences can be just as longwinded or as unfocused as passive sentences. The active the dog ate the food is much vaguer than the passive the decadent chocolate cake with butter cream icing and edible sparkles was eaten by the mischievous black lab who lives down the street. The active the dog ate the food is also much more boring than the more descriptive passive sentence full of vibrant details that show the reader the cake and the dog.
To learn about the appropriate uses of the passive voice, please continue reading on page three.
Using the Passive Voice
Just as the overuse of any linguistic form can create irritation, so too can the overuse of the passive voice. However, when used appropriately, passive sentences are perfectly legitimate English sentence structures.
1. Use the passive voice to avoid repetition and increase variety. For example:
- The pirates stole into the town in the middle of the night. When the pirates invaded his house, the timid doctor fought the pirates to save his family.
- The pirates stole into the town in the middle of the night. When his house was invaded, the timid doctor fought the pirates to save his family.
In the first pair of sentences, only the active voice is used which results in a repetition of the noun phrase the pirates. In the second pair of sentences, however, the active When the pirates invaded his house is replaced by the passive When his house was invaded. The reader must infer from the context that the pirates from the previous sentence had invaded the house. Because of the assumption that readers can understand such an implication, writers can increase the variety of sentence structures in their writing. However, writers must make certain that such implications are clear. Confusion is worse than repetition.
2. Use the passive voice when the grammatical agent is unknown or unimportant. For example:
- Too much pollution has been dumped in the river.
- Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
In the first sentence, the grammatical agent is unknown. Who dumped too much pollution in the river? In the second sentence, the grammatical agent is unimportant. The American people clearly elected Obama president because the American people always elect the president. However, the unknownness or unimportance of a grammatical agent is always context specific. For example, the agent becomes known when the speaker of the first sentence is an environmental agency addressing the board of directors of a company that dumps its waste into the river.
3. Use the passive voice to emphasize the direct object in an active sentence. For example:
- The child was hit by a car.
- Your luggage was lost by the airline.
Both sentences are examples of the passive voice being used to move emphasis from the subject to the direct object of an active sentence. In the first sentence, the speaker cares more about the child as the victim of being hit by a car than the car being the agent doing the hitting. The speaker of the second sentence is similarly more concerned with the lost luggage than the airline doing the losing of the luggage. However, a writer must take careful consideration when deciding to move emphasis from the subject to the direct object.
4. Use the passive voice to de-emphasize the grammatical subject of an active sentence. For example:
- Mistakes were made.
- The program was tampered with.
In the first sentence, the speaker completely omits the agent. The person who made the mistakes could, therefore, be either the speaker or someone else entirely. The same is true for the second sentence in which the tamperer of the program is not identified. So, yes, sometimes the passive voice intentionally hides the grammatical subject of a sentence. For example, a politician might say that mistakes were made when really the politician made the mistakes but he or she does not want to admit guilt. However, the passive voice also de-emphasizes agents when the agent is of little importance as in the second sentence in which the issue is that the program was tampered with, not that any particular person tampered with the program.
For a comparison of the passive voice in Latin and English, please read the article Latin Passive Voice Verbs: An English Comparison.