22) Voice in verbs

Voice in verbs

The voice of the verb relates to whether it is active (if the subject performs the action) or passive (if the subject receives the action).

1) Active voice vs Passive voice

To reiterate, we have two voices:

Active voice: when the subject performs the action.

Passive voice: when the subject receives the action.

Some examples are:

Active voice: I hate arrogant people.

Passive voice : Arrogant people are hated.

In the active sentence ‘I’ is the subject, the verb is ‘hate’ and the object is ‘arrogant people’. ‘I’, the subject, is performing the action (‘hate’) on the object ‘arrogant people’. This makes it active voice. Note that the object ‘arrogant people’ is a direct object because the subject ‘I’ is working directly on it. In the passive sentence, the subject is ‘The arrogant people’ the verb is ‘are’ and the past participle is ‘hated’. Note how the object from the active voice example (‘arrogant people’) is now the subject in the passive voice one. This means ‘the arrogant people’ are now having something done to them (being hated) making them passive. Let’s look at these two examples again accompanied by some classifications put in brackets:

Active voice: I (subject performing action) hate (verb) arrogant people (object receiving action)

Passive voice : Arrogant people (subject receiving action) are (verb) hated (past participle)

Firstly, we have previously talked about the subject being the thing being talked about in the sentence, and the object being the thing having something done to it by the subject. In the passive voice example ‘Arrogant people are hated.’ the thing being spoken about is the noun phrase ‘arrogant people’, making it the subject. Furthermore, the ‘I’ that was the subject in the active voice example is gone in the passive voice example. This actually means that there isn’t an object in this sentence. To add to the confusion, the subject, ‘arrogant people’ is receiving the action, which is similar to the sort of behaviour we see from objects. Considering this, what is common in these sorts of constructions is for a prepositional phrase to be added, which brings the ‘I’ back in to the sentence, as in:

Arrogant people are hated by me.

Here the subject ‘I’ from the passive voice has been brought back into the sentence in the form of the prepositional phrase ‘by me.’ This might make one say that ‘me’ is the subject, and ‘arrogant people’ is the object because ‘me’ is doing something to ‘arrogant people’ (hating them). However, this would be wrong. We can be sure that ‘arrogant people’ is still the subject because the subject of a sentence is usually the part which the verb agrees with. In this case, the subject ‘the arrogant people’ is plural; therefore, the plural verb ‘are’ is used to agree with it. It wouldn’t be right if we said:

Arrogant people is hated by me. (incorrect)

because the subject ‘arrogant people’ is plural and the verb ‘is’ is singular. Moreover, we can see that the verb doesn’t agree with ‘me’ in this sentence: ‘me’ is singular and ‘are’ is plural. As for the idea of ‘by me’ being the object in this sentence: the object is the part of the sentence having something done to it by the subject, whereas ‘me’ is actually the one doing something (hating) the subject (arrogant people) so that doesn’t make sense either.

The key to understanding ‘by me’ is to know a bit about prepositional phrases, which we deal with later, both when we look at prepositions, and when we look at phrases in detail. For now, we should know that prepositional phrases involve a preposition (e.g., ‘by’) and something acting as a noun/pronoun (e.g., ‘me’), together, and work as either an adjective (modifying a noun) or an adverb (modifying a verb, adjective or other adverb). In this instance, the prepositional phrase ‘by me’ is modifying the past participle ‘hated’ – which itself is working as an adjective on the subject ‘arrogant people’ via the linking verb ‘are’, making ‘by me’ an adverb. That is probably quite confusing at this point. To understand everything there we will need to wait until later when we get to prepositions, prepositional phrases, adjectives, predicate adjectives and adverbs.

2) How to move between voice

Lets continue our analysis by breaking down how to move from active to passive:

Active: I hate arrogant people.

Take the object and make it the subject. Remember, the object is the thing having something done to it by the subject; so, in this case, ‘arrogant people’ is having something done to it (being hated) by the subject (‘I’) via the verb ‘hate’. Therefore, we make ‘arrogant people’ the subject:

Arrogant people

We then use some form of ‘be’, or, if in the relevant tense, ‘has/have/had’ or ‘will’, along with the past participle of the verb. In this instance, we pick the ‘are’ form of ‘be’ because we are talking plurally, and in the first person. Secondly, we choose ‘hated‘ because this is the past participle form for the verb ‘hate’ – which is in the active sentence. It should be noted that this is not a perfect strategy, because in certain tenses ‘has/have/had’ and ‘will’ need to be inserted, and the present participle may be needed. For now, let’s just stick to this method. Picking ‘are’ and ‘hated’ gives us :

Arrogant people are hated

We then have the option of bringing back whatever the subject was from the active sentence with a a prepositional phrase as in:

Arrogant people are hated by me.

Let’s look at an example where we need to use forms of ‘have’:

Active: Ben has lost his wallet.

Passive: His wallet has been lost.

In the active sentence ‘Ben’ is the subject, ‘has lost’ is the verb phrase and ‘his wallet’ is the object. The subject (his wallet) is the thing performing the action (getting lost) via the verb (lost), making it an active sentence. In the passive sentence, the subject is ‘his wallet’, and that is having something done to it via the verb phrase ‘has been lost’; therefore, it is a passive sentence. Let’s start changing the active sentence to a passive one:

Active: Ben has lost his wallet.

The first thing to do is take the object (his wallet) and make it the subject:

His wallet

Now we need to know what has happened to this subject which is receiving some action. We have a few options here, depending on what we want to say, but I am going to stick with using the ‘have’ forms. To do that, we need to rearrange the phrase ‘has lost’. We keep ‘has’ and then add the past participle of ‘be’ – which is ‘been’ – to give us ‘has been’:

His wallet has been

Now it is a matter of adding the important verb which tells us what has happened to this new subject: ‘lost’:

His wallet has been lost.

An alternative to this might be something like:

Active: Ben lost his wallet.

Passive: His wallet was lost.

Here we made the object ‘his wallet’ the subject:

His wallet

then we bring in the past tense of ‘be’, which is ‘was’, followed by the vital verb ‘lost’:

His wallet was lost.

Let’s now look at going from passive to active, which is probably the more common skill needed.

Passive: The computer was bought by you.

Active: You bought the computer.

In the passive sentence the subject is ‘The computer’ and the passive verb is ‘bought’. The subject (‘the computer’) is now receiving action (being bought by you) from the verb (‘bought’). This makes it passive. The subject in the active sentence is ‘You’, the active verb is ‘bought’ and the object is ‘the computer’ – which is having something done to it (being bought) by the subject (‘you’). Because the subject is giving the action of the verb, it is an active sentence.

Let’s break down the movement from passive to active:

Passive: The computer was bought by you.

Take the object and make it the subject. So, the object is ‘you’ in this sentence because it is doing something (buying) to the subject (the computer). Therefore, we make the object of our passive sentence, ‘you’, the subject in our active sentence:

You

Now take the passive verb, ‘bought’, and change it from the past participle form into the simple past tense form – because we are in simple past tense here. In this case, the simple past tense and the past participle of ‘buy’ are both ‘bought’ so we still use ‘bought’:

You bought

Now take the subject of the sentence, which is ‘the computer’, and make it the direct object of the verb:

You bought the computer.

And there we have it. Lets look at one more example, because this is often difficult to get one’s head around:

Passive: Barbara will be forgiven by John.

Active: John will forgive Barbara.

In the passive sentence ‘Barbara’ is the subject, and is receiving the action of forgiveness from John, via the passive verb ‘forgiven’, making this a passive sentence. In the active sentence, ‘John’ is the subject, ‘forgive’ is the active verb and ‘Barbara’ is the direct object having something (being forgiven) done to it by the subject (‘John’). This makes it active.

Let’s move back from passive to active again:

Passive: Barbara will be forgiven by John.

Take the object and make it the subject. ‘John’ is forgiving ‘Barbara’, so Barbara is the subject here, and John is the object. In this step, we make the object the subject, so John becomes the subject:

John

Now take the passive verb, and change it from the past participle form into the simple future tense form (because we are in simple future tense here). In this case, the correct form for the future simple tense is ‘will’ + the base form of the verb ‘forgive’ (note that ‘be’ is working as an auxiliary verb in this sentence and ‘forgiven’ is the main verb).

John will forgive

Now take the subject of the passive sentence, ‘Barbara’, and make it the direct object of the verb:

John will forgive Barbara.

And that is the final step.

3) When to use active voice

It is much more common to hear complaints about the passive voice than the active voice. This is probably for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the active voice does tend to be much more clear, especially when dealing with longer, more complex sentences. Take a look at these two sentences:

Active: Joanne made fresh pizza with Pepperoni, four cheeses, olives, peppers, mushrooms and a stuffed crust, while John bought a desert from the shop which he pretended he had made, and Bert played the guitar and sang satirical songs about politics.

Passive: The fresh pizza with Pepperoni, four cheeses, olives, peppers, mushrooms and a stuffed crust was made by Joanne, while the desert from the shop, which he pretended he had made, was bought by John, and the satirical songs about politics played on the guitar and sang were played by Bert.

That is an extreme example, but it shows how it can get unclear quite quickly. The other thing to notice is the active uses 39 words and the passive 49 words, yet they are saying the same thing. Saying what you want to say in fewer words, while retaining the meaning, is usually desirable, so this is another reason to use the active voice.

The active voice is also often said to be more powerful. See these two examples:

Active voice: ‘Many people have died in that room.’

Passive voice: ‘That room has had many people die in it.’

The active voice here seems more stark; you might disagree, however. This probably comes back to the amount of words again. Think of a poem which encapsulates so much into just a few words. Those few words are more powerful, word for word, than the pages it might take to convey them in prose.

4) When to use passive voice

The passive voice can be used to remove the subject from the sentence. For example:

Active: ‘We killed innocent civilians.’

Passive: ‘Innocent civilians were killed.’

This is a particularly nasty use of the passive voice to try to dissociate from the action. It’s amazing the effect a subtle change like this can have on the recipient of the news. Even if I know it must have been them that did the killing, there is still this underlying difference in my emotional reaction when the words are switched around. Take another example:

Active: ‘Corporations bribed me.’

Passive: ‘Bribes were taken from corporations.’

This is really worth looking out for because it is often a sign of an attempt to use a grammatical change to manipulate us. However, there are other times where it is perfectly acceptable to use the passive tense. For example:

Active: ‘Someone stole my car.’

Passive: ‘My car was stolen.’

In this situation, the subject is not known, so it is OK to use the passive. Perhaps a more useful example of this would be:

Active: ‘Either the driver in the truck or the person on the bike caused an accident.’

Passive: ‘An accident occurred between a truck driver and a cyclist.’

Seeing as we don’t know who the cause of the accident was at this point, it may be desirable to have a shorter sentence.

Passive can also be used to stress a particular subject we want to focus on. For example:

Active: “Orwell wrote ‘1984′ in 1949.”

Passive: “‘1984′ was written by Orwell in 1949.”

In the active sentence, it could be said that the subject, ‘Orwell’, is stressed, while in the passive ‘1984’ is the subject, and that is stressed. I suppose this is arguable though. Another reason we might use the passive here is that the second sentence is a little clearer because it doesn’t have the two dates close to each other.

5) Emphatic forms use active voice, but don’t have a passive reconstruction

Emphatic forms use ‘do’, ‘did’ or ‘does’ as auxiliary verbs + the base form of the verb to give stress or emphasis to the verb. So for example, take:

‘I do’ + ‘agree’ (base form of verb)

This gives an extra emphasis than just saying:

I agree.

This is only seen in the past and present tense, as shown in the table below.

  Singular Plural
First person Past tense: ‘I did support you.’

Present tense: ‘I do support you.’

Past tense: ‘We did support you.’

Present tense: ‘We do support you.’

Second person Past tense: ‘You did need help.’

Present tense: ‘You do need help.’

Past tense: ‘You did need help.’

Present tense: ‘You do need help.’

Third person Past tense: ‘He did help you.’

Present tense: ‘He does help you.’

Past tense: ‘They did help you.’

Present tense: ‘They do help you.’

This is also only in the active voice. Trying to turn ‘I do agree’ into the passive voice won’t work. This is because there is no way to make the subject ‘I’ receive the verb ‘agree’. It would end up with something like:

Agree, do I. (incorrect)

which sounds a bit too much like Yoda for it to become a respectable sentence.

6) Questions

1) What is active voice and when is it used?

2) What is passive voice and when is it used?

3) How do you move between these two voices?

OK, we are done with verbs now. Let’s move onto a whole new word class: adjectives.

NEXT: 23) Adjectives

Posted in English Grammar