The Active and Passive Voice

Firstly, it is necessary to understand what is meant by the word 'voice' when we use it as a grammar term. The linguistic term 'voice' describes how a language expresses the relationships between verbs and the nouns or noun phrases which are associated with them. Again we will contrast two sentences of similar meaning in order to help us to understand this.

  1. The police arrested David for being drunk and disorderly.
  2. David was arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

Quiz № 1: a) How do the sentences differ in meaning? b) How does the second sentence differ from the first in structure? c) Which sentence would it be more usual to hear?

Check Answers

Sentence (1) above is an example of the active voice while sentence (2) is in the passive voice. When we use the passive we do not usually state the agent. This is because it is obvious, unknown or unnecessary.

  1. I was arrested last night. (obvious)
  2. My car was stolen last night. (unknown)
  3. This tower was built in 1415. (unnecessary)

If we really wish to mention the agent in a passive sentence, we can do so by adding a phrase beginning with 'by'.

'This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.'

So why might we choose to use the passive in sentences like this? The fact that Sir Henry built the tower is not obvious, unnecessary and it is certainly not unknown! Also computer grammar checkers are always highlighting them as something undesirable. Well, let's look more closely at the active and passive versions of the sentence.

  1. Sir Henry Rumboldt built this tower in 1415.
  2. This tower was built in 1415, by Sir Henry Rumboldt.

Which sentence is more likely to be found in a book about Sir Henry? Which is more likely in a book about the tower? Answers: (1) and (2) respectively. When the focus is on Sir Henry the active voice is more usual, and when it is on the tower the passive is more natural.

One more point, according to most EFL course books the passive is made with the auxiliary verb 'be' and the past participle (third form of the verb). This is not always the case. What is the difference in meaning between these sentences?

  1. I was arrested last night.
  2. I got arrested last night.

Answer: there isn't any difference. Hence the second sentence must be passive too as it has the same form as the first. This is sometimes called the 'get' passive.

End of Section

Answer to Quiz Questions

Answers to Quiz № 1: Active/Passive

a)  They mean the same.
b)  Three things have changed in the second sentence: The agents (the police) do not appear in this version of the sentence; The noun 'David' which was the object of the first sentence has moved and is now in the role of the subject of the sentence; The auxiliary verb 'be' has been inserted before the main verb.
c)  The second: it is not necessary to state that the police did the arresting that is understood since it is comparitively rare that someone is arrested by anyone other than a police officer.

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