What is the passive voice? Part 1 of 2

What is the passive voice? Part 1 of 2

The passive voice is in some ways the boogeyman of writing because it is widely misunderstood. You’ve probably heard that the passive voice is grammatically wrong (it’s not) or that it is akin to weak writing (it usually isn’t). So what is the passive voice? I’m here to clear the air. I have a lot to say, so I’m breaking my discussion into two parts. In this first part, I’ll describe what the passive voice is and how to identify it.

Passive versus active voice

English has two voices: the active voice and the passive voice. (Some languages, like Albanian, Icelandic, Ancient Greek, and Classical Mongolian, have three or more voices, so consider yourself lucky.)

The active voice is the more commonly used of the two voices in everyday speech and writing. In the active voice, the subject (the thing doing something or being something) is the agent of the verb; the object is the recipient of that verb. Consider the following example:

The dog bites the man.

This sentence is in the active voice because the dog (the subject) is the thing doing the action (the verb bites). The man (the object) is the thing having the action performed to it. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action:

The man was bitten (by the dog).

In this passive construction, the man is the subject of the sentence, but he is not performing the the action (he is the thing being bitten). Oftentimes, the doer of the action in a passive construction is indicated with the preposition by. This prepositional phrase isn’t necessary, though, since all that is required to make a sentence is a subject and a verb (more on this in part 2).

Elements of the passive voice

So what is the passive voice composed of? The passive voice is, at very least, the combination of three things: (1) a subject, (2) a to-be verb (such as was, were, been, etc.), and (3) a past participle. Looking back at the previous example (“the man was bitten”), the subject is the man, the to-be verb is was, and the past participle is bitten. As I noted above, the passive voice often contains a fourth element: a prepositional phrase indicated by the word by (“by the dog” in the above example).

How to spot the passive voice

The passive voice sometimes looks like another grammatical construction: the predicate adjective. Sentences containing predicate adjectives also have a subject, a to-be verb, and an adjective that sometimes resembles a past participle (ends in -ed). Consider the following example:

The woman was bored.

Although at first glance this sentence may look like a passive construction, it is in fact a predicate adjective. A sentence in the the passive voice always describes an action or a change in state; in contrast, a predicate adjective (as in the above example) describes a state of being.

To test if a sentence is in the passive voice, consider whether the sentence describes an action. Since the above example describes the state of the woman (bored), it is a predicate adjective, not the passive voice. Conversely, the sentence “The man was bitten” describes an action (bites), so it is in the passive voice.

There is a second commonly used test, but it doesn’t work as well as the one I described above. This so-called “zombie” test states that, if you put “by zombies” after a suspected passive construction and the sentence still makes sense, the sentence is in the passive voice. If I see “The man was bitten,” the test claims, I can conclude that this sentence is in the passive voice because “The man was bitten by zombies” makes logical, if not realistic, sense. It’s not that easy, however.

The sentence “The woman was bored by zombies” arguably doesn’t make sense, but if I’m talking about a woman who was watching Season 7 of the The Walking Dead, the sentence becomes perfectly clear (especially if you follow that show). Considering whether the sentence describes an action or a state of being is thus the safer way of identifying a passive construction. (In this example, the zombies were not performing an action on the woman.)

The passive voice in different tenses

So far, I’ve limited my examples to the present tense, but passive constructions can be formed in any tense. Consider the following example of the passive voice in the past perfect tense (the tense used to describe an action that came before another action):

The man had been bitten (by the dog).

We still have all the necessary components of a passive construction in this example: a subject (the man), a to-be verb (been), and a past participle (bitten). Because this sentence is in the past perfect tense, however, we also have an auxiliary or “helper” verb (had). The zombie test still works, though, and the sentence describes an action rather than a state of being, so we know that this is a passive construction and not a predicate adjective.

Conclusion

Hopefully I’ve helped you understand what the passive voice is and how to spot it in your writing. In the second part of this series, I’ll talk about why the passive voice is considered weak writing or grammatically wrong, how to reword (“fix”) passive constructions, and how the passive voice can be useful. Click here to check out the second post in this series, “What is the passive voice? Part 2.”

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