Passive Voice

It’s about more than just what verb you use.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #302

It’s time for Part 2 of our two-episode series on active and passive voice.

Refresher: What Is Active Voice?

Last week, I said that to really understand passive voice, we need to know what active voice is. A common definition of active voice is that the verb’s subject is performing the action, or in linguistic terms, that the subject has the agent role. Although that’s often true, by that definition, sentences such as “They suffered and died” and “Something happened” would incorrectly be classified as passive. I spent the rest of that episode giving a more accurate definition of active voice. If you didn’t catch last week’s podcast, you’ll definitely want to listen to it before you listen to this one.

Last week, I talked about various semantic roles, including agent, patient, recipient, and experiencer; and gave examples of verbs in the active voice whose subjects weren’t agents.

What Is Passive Voice?

You can't make an intransitive verb passive.

Once you know about active voice, the definition for passive voice is pretty simple. It’s a verb form that meets two requirements. First, it must have a past participle (such as “loved” or “given”); and second, its subject fills a different semantic role than in the active voice. Some examples will show how this definition works.

Examples of Passive Voice

Take the active-voice clause “Steve loves Amy.” In this clause, the subject Steve has the role of experiencer: He’s the one who loves. Amy has the role of stimulus, the one who produces this emotion in Steve.  

Let’s put that sentence in passive voice: “Amy is loved by Steve.” We have the past participle “loved.” (First criteria met!) The subject is now Amy, and Amy fills not the experiencer role, but the stimulus role. So this clause meets both requirements: a past participle, and a subject linked to a different role than the active-voice subject.

What about the active-voice clause “We gave Squiggly lots of gifts”? The subject “we” fills the agent role. The indirect object “Squiggly” has the role of recipient, and the direct object “lots of gifts” has the role of patient. To make this clause passive, we need the past participle “given,” and a subject that plays some role other than agent. We could make it passive by giving it a patient as the subject, as in “Lots of gifts were given to Squiggly.” Or we could make it passive by giving it a subject that fills the recipient role, as in “Squiggly was given lots of gifts.”

Now let’s try “Mary Jane is swimming.” This clause is in the active voice, and its subject, Mary Jane, is the agent. We can’t make it passive. There is no role other than agent to put with the past participle “swum.” 

We can’t put “Roscoe died” into the passive voice, either. The subject is realizing the only semantic role this verb has: the patient. There is no other role for the subject to be linked to for a passive-voice rephrasing.

Intransitive Verbs Can’t Be Passive

What “swim” and “die” illustrate is that you just can’t make an intransitive verb passive. They’re always in the active voice. This is important, because writers or speakers are sometimes unjustly criticized for using the passive voice in sentences like “An accident occurred.” It may be true that saying “An accident occurred” allows someone to be vague or evasive about who caused the accident, but grammatically, it is definitely in the active voice.

Passive Sentences Don’t Need a Form of “To Be”

Often, definitions of passive voice say that the past participle has to follow some form of “be.” The examples we’ve seen—“Amy is loved by Steve” and “Squiggly was given lots of gifts”—certainly meet that definition. However, that definition overlooks less-typical examples of passive voice. For example, there are passives that use the linking verb “get,” as in “Shelby got caught.”

Here’s another passive that doesn’t use a form of “be.” In “We had the house painted last summer,” the past participle “painted” describes “the house,” but the house isn’t the one doing the painting; it’s the thing getting painted. Another example is “I want this room cleaned by the time I get home.” The past participle “cleaned” describes “this room,” but the room won’t be doing the cleaning; it will be undergoing the cleaning.

Passive Voice Isn’t Wrong

Passive voice is not bad grammar. It’s not even necessarily bad style. In fact, it’s often good style. Overusing it can weaken your writing, but that’s true of just about any writing device you can think of. Knowing what is and is not passive voice, you can make better decisions about how you want to use it.

This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.

The podcast closing song is “March Forth”--the National Grammar Day theme song--and it’s available at iTunes.

References and Further Reading
Freeman, Jan. Mar. 22, 2009. “What we get wrong about passive.” The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/03/22/active_resistance/ Accessed Sept. 20, 2011.

Pullum, Geoff. Jan. 24, 2011. “The passive in English.” Language Log post. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922 Accessed Sept. 18, 2011.

“Unaccusative verb.” Wikipedia entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unaccusative_verb. Accessed Sept. 20, 2011.

Related Articles
Part I: Active Voice
A Simpler Article about Active Voice and Passive Voice

4. Diary image, Kevin VolVaneille at Flickr. CC BY SA-2.0

About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.

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