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A Short Explanation of the Passive Voice

Writers and style guides have warned against using the passive voice for about a century now. Yet, within that same period, some grammarians and linguistics have defended the passive voice’s legitimacy and utility. This blog post will try to explain how.

The Active Voice

Let’s start with the basics, from grade school. The most basic sentence consists of a verb and few nouns (here we treat articles as ‘part’ of the noun). Different verbs require different number of nouns to form a complete sentence. Each of those nouns are the arguments of the verb, and the number of arguments that a verb takes is the transitivity (or valency) of the verb. In English, verbs can require:

  • 1 noun: The man walks, The dog sleeps. These are intransitive verbs.
  • 2 nouns: The boy sees the girl, The dog catches the ball. These are transitive verbs.
  • 3 nouns: The boy gives the girl a cat, The man sends a letter to Washington, D. C. These are ditransitive verbs.

First, let’s consider the meaning (or semantics) of the transitive sentences. Each of the verbs needs two nouns:

  • The noun that does or preforms the action (the boy, the dog). In the jargon of linguistics, they are called the actor.
  • The noun that receives the action (the girl, the ball). These are called the patient.

Now let’s consider the grammatical arrangement (or syntax) of the nouns. Each transitive sentence has a subject, which goes before the verb, and the (direct) object, which goes after the verb. (Note how we can replace the subject with a subject pronoun, like He sees the girl and the object with an object pronoun, like The boy sees her.)

Finally, notice how in the sentences how:

  • The subject is the actor, the doer of the action.
  • The object is the patient, the receiver of the action.

This arrangement of the grammar and meaning is called the active voice. It is typical arrangement for English sentences.

The Passive Voice

Now we can start discussing the passive voice. First, let’s look at its form. All English passive verbs have the form:

conjugated form of to be + past participle of the verb

Thus, our example sentences has the following passive sentence conterparts:

The boy sees the girl.The girl was seen (by the boy).
The dog catches the ball.The ball was caught (by the dog).

Notice how the arrangement between the grammar and the meaning of the arguments have changed:

  • The receivers of the action, which were the object in the active sentences, are the subjects of the passive verbs.
  • The actors of the action, which were the subject in the active sentences, are now in a prepositional phrase (string of words that starts with a preposition, in this case by) that is optional.

In short, the passive voice changes a transitive verb into intransitive verb, and changes arrangement of verb’s arguments.

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