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  1. A torpedo sunk the ship.
  2. The ship was sunk.
  3. The ship sunk.

The first is active, the second is passive.

http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/quickreference/dash/dashactive.cfm contains the frequently-cited rule:

When we write in the passive voice, we add some form of the helping verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, being, or been) to an otherwise strong verb that really did not need help.

But what about number three? A debater could take either side:

  • Active: the ship performed an action upon itself, as if sinking itself were analogous to sinking another ship
  • Passive: The action happened to the ship as a result of some unspecified circumstance, identical in meaning to number two.

But I don't want to debate, I want to know which is the right answer :-).

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    How is #3 passive? Do you mean it sank? That's intransitive but not passive, like the ship anchored or the tree fell. – Yosef Baskin Jun 6 '17 at 23:01
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    #3 is sometimes termed "inchoative" or "anticausitive", see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anticausative_verb – Mark Beadles Jun 6 '17 at 23:05
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    @YosefBaskin I do mean that it sank, which is identical in meaning to to it sunk. Both “sank” and “sunk” are accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English: grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/01/honey-i-sunk-the-boat.html – Dave Jun 6 '17 at 23:07
  • Thanks @MarkBeadles - if you write that as an answer I'll give you points for enlarging my vocabulary. – Dave Jun 6 '17 at 23:11
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    The passive construction is defined as one using the passive transformation from the active: [Agent] shot Bob <==> Bob was (or got) shot. (3) cannot be a passive construction; this is not a matter of reasoning. The terms 'active' and 'passive' in grammar have different definitions from those your 'debater' is using. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 '17 at 0:00
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I've actually already written about this on ELL. My conclusion has been that all style guides fail to adequately classify sentences like this in their two category system of active vs. passive voice.

This is why linguistics breaks things down into more than just active and passive. "Middle voice" is just one of the many terms out there that describe this, according to Wikipedia:

Patientive (S = O) ambitransitives are those where the single argument of the intransitive (S) corresponds to the object (O) of the transitive. For example, in the sentence John (S) tripped and John (A) tripped Mary (O), John is not the person doing the falling in both sentences. Likely candidates for this type of ambitransitive are verbs that affect an agent spontaneously, or those that can be engineered by an agent. English has bend, break, burn, burst, change, cool, enter, extend, fall, frighten, grow, hurry, melt, move, open, spill, stretch, trip, turn, twist, walk, and many other verbs.

Verbs of this class have been called unaccusative verbs, middle voice, ergative or anticausative verbs in the literature, but again, these terms are not universally defined.


Also to answer your titular question, this is unmistakably passive voice without be:

The ship got sunk.

  • It was covered years ago on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 6 '17 at 23:56
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Your third example is an active voice sentence using the intransitive verb "sink" (to move downward due to a lack of buoyancy). This has a different, though related, meaning from the transitive verb "sink" (to cause an object to stop floating).

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