The two most common frames of reference seem to be (1) agency attribution at the level of sentence structure (active vs. passive voice) and (2) the use of stylistic elements to stamp the persona of the author(and/or a character) with identity characteristics- this is closely related to the idea of point of view (POV).

Complexities emerge when we look more closely at (2), since "voice" is used in all kinds of more-or-less metaphorical ways. To refer to Dorothy Sayers' "dry voice" is to say something about her outlook as well as her writing style. "Voice is also associated with direct quotation, which may or may not include dialect or style markers that flesh out social identity, i.e. the "Black voice" of Jim, the formerly enslaved character in Huckleberry Finn is based in speech patterns that Twain may have heard and studied. "Voice" is also associated with individual as well as collective perspectives of a more general nature. One could describe Questlove's recent film Summer of Soul (which is about the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969) as simultaneously showcasing Black voices and as redeeming the erasure of "the Black voice" from the mainstream cultural history of the 1960s.

So, is there a common thread to these different ways fo referring "voice" in written language? What is it? Are there other ways of using "voice" that I haven't mentioned?

I'd be especially interested in perspectives from rhetoric, since there seem to be several implicit distinctions and variables in play, and I could use some help in parsing them out.

There's a useful thread What does voice in writing mean?, from 9 years ago, but I don't think it fully answers my question.

(Added on 8/15): After mulling over the comments below and seeing that my question has just been reopened, let me try a second iteration. (I trust somebody will let me know if this ought to be posted as a fresh question.)

Why is the grammatical category of "voice," which I have referred to above as (1), so named?

My understanding is that generally speaking, "voice" has to do with the relationship of participants to the action contained in a sentence. Possible forms of voice extend beyond active and passive, for languages have developed many ways for expressing different ways ways of acting/being acted upon. This is even true in English: "the book sold well" is technically passive but it imputes some agency to the book itself - unlike, say, "the book was sold by Amazon."

OK, BUT: how/why did the ancient grammarians who were in the business of inscribing speech as writing even come to denote this category as voice ? I just don't see that acting/acting upon has any intrinsic/logical relationship with vocalization, certainly not pre-Christianity.

It would be great if somebody could explain the linkage - or perhaps the "dead metaphor." Which brings me to an ancillary question: would it be correct to conclude that the grammatical idea of voice is (or was) in fact a metaphor, qualitatively no different than the various metaphorical uses of "voice" in writing- see (2)- above- which Lawler so helpfully describes in his 2012 post?

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    Is the question whether (1) and (2) have anything in common? Or is it what different variants of (2) have in common (setting (1) aside as obviously a different sense of the word)? Or is it whether there is some third sense of the word that is similar to (2), but still different from it?
    – jsw29
    Aug 14, 2021 at 16:35
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    I think you shouldn't worry about the linguistic term 'voice' for the varieties of active/passive/etc. It's practically an empty technical term and gets its meaning entirely from a mechanical definition. (it's like the mathematical terms 'group', 'ring', and 'field' whose mathematical meanings have nothing whatsoever to do with their usual non-mathematical uses. The other metaphorical versions of voice that you refer to have more depth to them.
    – Mitch
    Aug 14, 2021 at 16:52
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    What should I add to my 2012 post to answer your question? I think you've got it -- it's metaphor, nothing "more or less" about it. Aug 14, 2021 at 18:30
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    As for grammatical "voice", the term has been done in, at least in English, as Mark Liberman pointed out some years ago. Aug 15, 2021 at 16:35
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    @SmitaLahiri the recent Liberman blog post is more referring to the common (mis)use of 'passive voice' to refer to 'lack of agency or leaving out an explicit agent'. This is a common 'internet problem', calling a lack of agency the passive voice when it's just a lack of agency. It doesn't really address the meaning or provenance of 'voice' in grammatical voice. Note that you could ask a similar question about other verb features like 'subjunctive mood' or 'completed aspect' where any explanation of the noun as some kind of metaphor would be terribly... tortured.
    – Mitch
    Aug 15, 2021 at 19:09

2 Answers 2


Why is the grammatical category of "voice" so named?

Good question. I wondered about that, too, and figured it was Latin -- vox, vocis, after all -- so I checked Donatus. But he doesn't use the term at all, and doesn't even group active and passive in a separate category; they're called 'types of verbs' (genera verborum -- given the definitions, this seems to be like what we would now call "verb forms"). Passive and Active verbs are identified only by their endings, not by their uses or meanings, and they're classed with deponent and semideponent verbs, also by types of endings. So that's a dead end. Grammatical "voice" is not a Latin term.

The OED's first examples of the grammatical sense of voice in English are remarkably recent:

  • 1382 Wyclif Prol. 57 A participle of a present tens, either preterit, of actif vois, eithir passif.
  • 1591 Percival Span. Dict. C 2 By changing e of the future of the Indicatiue into ia, you make the third voice of the preterimperfect tense of the Subiunctiue.
    (the OED adds that it was "used instead of 'person'" here; i.e, it's a typo)
  • 1612 Brinsley Pos. Parts (1615) 20 b, Giue the terminations of the first Persons of the Actiue voice alone.

These appear to be discussing Latin grammar. Looking at related languages, German just says im Passiv, but French and Spanish both use reflexes of Latin vox.

So somewhere along the line, the term 'voice' got picked up and stuck with this meaning. Probly nobody had any use for the term any more, what with all this newfangled printing and reformation and renaissance and all that stuff going on.

English, of course, doesn't have any grammatical Voice; there's a Passive construction (transformation, rule), and a Middle alternation (which, incidentally, is what's going on with The book is selling well), but no Active construction, rule, transformation, or alternation. Or voice.

This is just linguistic terminology, used conservatively. I'm not a conservative person, but I use grammatical terms conservatively because when they're used liberally, they tend to smear across every topic we can possibly associate with language, which is pretty much everything.

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    Dutch does not use stem for voice, to my knowledge, but rather diathese. As to Latin, the normal term for voice is specifically genus. The mystery of English remains. Aug 16, 2021 at 0:03
  • Is @John Lawler ironically suggesting that the enlistment of voice" for grammatical purposes coincided with increasing social awareness of the distinction between speakers' agency and the effects of their speech-- and that this awareness was in turn related to the rise of literacy, literary culture, etc.? Aug 16, 2021 at 13:29
  • Nah, I think they just needed a word to use and settled on voice (or vox, because they were probably writing in and about Latin at the time) because it was metaphorically coherent and not already appropriated. Aug 16, 2021 at 13:41
  • That English does not have any grammatical voice may be 'of course' in some narrow circles; in the terminology that millions of people are regularly exposed to in their education, it surely does. A consistent descriptivist cannot ignore the latter fact.
    – jsw29
    Aug 16, 2021 at 16:04
  • I am not responsible for what other teachers teach. If they teach nonsense, I can't do anything about it but call it nonsense. If you mean to say that one should use grammatical terms in random ways, like they are used in schools, I disagree. I try to use them consistently and clearly. Aug 16, 2021 at 16:10

So, is there a common thread to these different ways for referring "voice" in written language?

Yes, it all relates back to the idea of a noise produced by a person (or later, an animal or other sentient creature.) The OED gives 3 main meanings of "voice" Together these have 14 sub-meanings and about 36 nuances and uses. It would be unreasonable to reproduce them all.

I. Sound produced by and characteristic of a specific person or animal. (A particularized instance of the phenomenon described in branch II.) From c.1300

II. The sound that can be produced by the vocal organs of humans or animals, considered as a general fact or phenomenon. from c1330

III. Grammar.

A category used in the classification of verb forms serving to indicate the relation of the subject to the action.

c1425 in C. R. Bland Teaching Gram. in Late Medieval Eng. (1991) 160 (MED) Þo secund coniugaciun..of passyf wowus, þat as -e- long befor þo -ris indecatyf, as doceris.

a1450 (▸a1397) Prol. Old Test. in Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Cambr. Mm.2.15) (1850) xv. 57 A participle of a present tens, either preterit, of actif vois, eithir passif.

1991 ‘J. le Carré’ Secret Pilgrim vi. 128 An effort now being made, he said—making suspicious use of the passive voice.

The noun itself comes via Norman French and Latin (vox) from the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit vāc, Avestan vač, ancient Greek ὄπα (accusative).

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    By asking whether there is 'a common thread' among these different ways of using the word, the OP is seeking an explanation of the relationships among them. A look at any dictionary can easily confirm that the word can be used in these ways, but it does not explain why, which is what the OP wants to know.
    – jsw29
    Aug 15, 2021 at 20:39
  • @jsw29 Are you suggesting closing this as the answer can be found by commonly available sources? I had that concern and deleted the answer, only to reinstate it today - perhaps that was a mistake. I would suggest that the flow of the word's evolution is obvious if one looks at a good dictionary.
    – Greybeard
    Aug 15, 2021 at 22:12
  • Greybeard, it was sound advice to look at the development of the word in English, but jsw29 is correct. When I belatedly realized that what I was after was more along along the lines of a genealogy of the category of voice, I modified my original question accordingly. Aug 16, 2021 at 12:59
  • @Greybeard, no, the question should not be closed: it is asking for much more than can be found in the dictionaries. The word's evolution from, say, I and II to III is far from obvious (at least to me, and probably to the OP as well); if you find it obvious, it might be helpful if you could explain it to those of us to whom it is not obvious.
    – jsw29
    Aug 16, 2021 at 15:54

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