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How can I reliably and accurately identify the passive voice in writing or speech? I'm not interested in advice about whether or not to use it yet... I just want to know for sure what it is, so that I don't look as stupid as these people.

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9 Answers 9

up vote 14 down vote accepted

A clause in the passive voice must have all the following:

  • A form of an auxiliary verb (usually be or get)
  • The past participle of a transitive verb
  • No direct object
  • The subject of the verb phrase is the entity undergoing an action or having its state changed

Optionally, the agent is expressed in a prepositional phrase with by.


There are a couple exceptions; see the comments below.

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There is a small class of exceptions to the “no direct object” condition, if I’m not mistaken: ditransitive verbs. For instance, the active sentence Alice gave Bob some books has two passive forms, Some books were given to Bob by Alice and Bob was given some books by Alice. This second form has a direct object. (The two passive forms correspond to the two objects of gave: books, which is certainly direct, and Bob, who is arguably indirect and optionally could be given a pronoun and moved to the end of the sentence.) –  PLL Jan 4 '11 at 3:09
    
(Note that in the original sentence, one can argue that there is an elided proposition and books is the only direct object of gave; but in the sentence Bob was given some books [by Alice], it is unambiguous that Bob is now the subject and books the object, since the verb is was not were.) –  PLL Jan 4 '11 at 3:11
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In addition, the passive voice can exist apart from clauses, in which case no auxiliary verb is needed. –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 17:58
    
Oh man. Nohat, ya gotta fix this post. I know you know better. (Other threads are getting directed here.) –  F.E. May 15 at 8:57
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Passive voice is a construction where the object of a transitive verb is moved into the subject position, and the subject is optionally moved into a prepositional phrase. In English, the passive can always be identified by to be + past participle. Some examples:

Active: Kim hits the ball.
Passive: The ball is hit by Kim.

Active: Grandma baked a cake.
Passive: The cake was baked by Grandma.

Active: Mr. Henry bought the painting for six million dollars.
Passive: The painting was bought for six million dollars.

Note the following:

  • All of these sentences contain a form of the verb to be followed immediately by a past participle. Without that telltale, it's not a passive sentence.
  • The prepositional phrase with by is optional, as in the last sentence. However, a sentence that identifies the actor with a phrase beginning with by is usually passive.

Now, to clear up some common misconceptions.

Intransitive verbs are never passive, even if the subject of the verb isn't doing anything. For example, none of the following are passive:

The boy fell down.

Six buildings burned to the ground.

The cake is baking.

All of these sentences have intransitive verbs, which are verbs that do not take an object. The fact that the subject of the verb isn't really "active" in any of these cases does not make these examples of "passive voice". All of the previous are in fact active voice.

Second, passive voice has hardly anything to do with the "focus" of the sentence. For example, the following is not passive:

We all watched John make a brilliant save.

The "focus" of the action here is John, but that's irrelevant to the question of active voice and passive voice. The main verb watched is in the active voice, and John is the object of watched. The passive version of this sentence would be:

John was watched making a brilliant save by all of us.

(Which is an extremely awkward sentence.)

Finally, there are two other constructions sometimes misidentified as passive because they share some syntactic features with the passive voice, but which emphatically are not passive.

The first is the progressive, which consists of to be + present participle. (The present participle always ends in -ing.) For example, none of the following are passive:

Kim is hitting the ball.

Grandma was baking a cake.

Although these contain a form of to be, they aren't passive since they don't contain the past participle.

The second is the perfect, which consists of to have + past participle. For example, none of the following are passive:

Kim has hit the ball.

Grandma had baked a cake.

Although these contain the past participle, they aren't passive since the participle doesn't follow a form of to be.

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In let's eat the cake made by auntie Val, "baked" is passive. No form of to be is necessary. –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 18:02
    
@Cerberus, you're right. The word made (or baked) is a passive participle, but the clause that it's in is in the active voice. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 24 '11 at 18:06
    
True. Different voices can be embedded in one another. Be glad that we are no Ancient Greeks, who had three voices: active, medium, and passive... –  Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 18:12
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Grammar Girl had a good podcast on this very topic recently: "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice"

She had a really good definition for passive voice:

What is Passive Voice?
In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, "Steve loves Amy," I would say, "Amy is loved by Steve." The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve's love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

I really like her debunking the myth that a sentence is automatically in passive voice if the verb is a "to be" verb. For example the following sentence is definitely in active voice despite what Strunk & White think.

I am holding a pen.

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On what planet is "am holding" a "to be" verb? –  moioci Aug 24 '10 at 3:54
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"Am" is clearly a "to be" verb. "Holding" is a gerund. I'm not sure what you are suggesting with that comment. –  JohnFx Aug 24 '10 at 15:18
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holding is a participle here –  nohat Sep 6 '10 at 19:09
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In simple terms:

The boy kicked the ball. Active. The ball was kicked by the boy. Passive.

There are lots of related constructions, but you will need to consult a good grammar such as the "Cambridge Grammar of English" if you need a detailed analysis.

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Meaning is not always a clear indicator; but grammatically it should be easy to spot: look out for a form of 'to be' followed by a past tense form, such as

The ball WAS KICKED.

The questions IS ANSWERED in the next section.

The film HAS BEEN SHOWN before.

And if there is an actor present, it would be in a BY-phrase, but that can be omitted (as in the examples here).

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Language Log has been posting a lot recently about things that are wrongly being identified as passive voice, and therefore shouldn't be used. Doubly nonsense, because passive isn't something necessarily to be avoided - the advice against it seems to come from Microsoft Word's grammar checker.

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The simplest rule that I can suggest here is that the subject of the sentence is not 'Actively' doing something. He/She/It is 'Passive' i.e. it is being acted upon. the subject here is the recipient of action, rather than the doer.

e.g.

"The child was struck by the car." " The fruit was eaten"

Here,The child was acted upon by the car. Likewise for the fruit here.

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Counterexample: the bill became law. The bill isn't actively doing anything, but the grammatical construct is active voice. In contrast to, say, "the bill was signed into law." –  moioci Aug 24 '10 at 3:56
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I think following articles will be helpful to you:

  1. Passive Voice - Wikipedia
  2. English Passive Voice - Wikipedia
  3. Passive Voice Self-Tests
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When I'm teaching passive vs. active voice, I use this rule of thumb:

Look at the sentence. Can you find the person or thing doing the action? If you can't find it in the sentence, that's usually the first tip that the sentence is passive. And if you can find it - is the thing doing the action coming before or after the verb? If it's before the verb - active. If it's after the verb - passive.

The popcorn was made. (passive - the person making popcorn isn't in the sentence)

The popcorn was made by me. (passive - "me" comes after the verb, "was made")

I made the popcorn. (active - "I" comes before "made")

There are of course exceptions, but this sends to be simple and easy.

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So "That's correct," said I is passive because "I" comes after "said"? Nonsense. –  Daniel Roseman Aug 13 '10 at 8:59
    
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong." H.L.Mencken –  Mei May 27 '11 at 4:21
    
And yet, for students studying passive voice (at lower levels of fluency), this piece of advice will help them enormously, since subject inversions (outside question structures and 'so/neither do I') are only studied at higher levels. –  Sara Costa May 29 '13 at 13:26
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protected by RegDwigнt May 19 '11 at 8:24

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