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.
A clause in the passive voice must have all the following:
Example: The documents were printed.
Optionally, the agent is expressed in a prepositional phrase with by: The documents were printed by the printer.
There are some exceptions; though, generally speaking, if a given clause meets all the above conditions, then it is certainly passive voice. The Wikipedia article about the English passive voice has a pretty complete coverage, detailing all cases of English passive voice, but the major exceptions are these:
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:
Note the following:
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:
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:
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:
(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:
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:
Although these contain the past participle, they aren't passive since the participle doesn't follow a form of to be.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
"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.
I think following articles will be helpful to you:
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.
protected by RegDwigнt♦ May 19 '11 at 8:24
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