Understanding the difference between the active and passive voices and how to use the two forms in the right way. The active and passive… what? Even if the definition of an active voice or passive voice may seem new to you, trust us, you are already very much familiar with these two voices, and you probably already use them on a daily basis.
The active voice explained
Before delving into the world of the passive voice, we should probably start by discussing what the active voice is, as it is slightly easier to understand. With the term “active voice”, we refer to a sentence whose subject performs the action expressed by the verb.
For example, a simple clause like You are reading an article about the active and passive voices shows the use of the active voice, where You is performing the action expressed by the verb – reading an article in this instance.
It goes without saying that we can have an active voice featuring a verb in many different tenses. We could say The baby drinks his milk in the present tense, the baby drank his milk in the simple past tense, or the baby will drink his milk in the future tense, and we would still have an active voice as the subject of our example, the baby, is performing the action expressed by the main verb, which is drinking his milk.
The passive voice explained
With the passive voice, it’s the opposite, meaning that the subject becomes the recipient of the verb’s action. If we take the first example in the active voice we mentioned – You are reading an article about the active and passive voice – its corresponding passive form would be the following:
An article about the active and passive voice is being read by you.
As you can see, you are “undergoing” the action expressed by the verb, whose new subject is the article itself. To make it clearer, let’s also transform the other examples we previously mentioned in their corresponding passive voice:
The baby drinks his milk (active) – The milk is drunk by the baby (passive)
The baby drank his milk (active) – The milk was drunk by the baby (passive)
The baby will drink his milk (active) – The milk will be drunk by the baby (passive)
If every passive voice has a corresponding active one, the same cannot be said for all active voices. Only transitive verbs have both. As a reminder, a transitive verb is a verb requiring an object to make sense. For example, if you just say a short sentence like “They create”, someone else will probably ask you “What?” – as your sentence needs a direct object to make sense. In fact, transitive verbs are followed by an object that can answer the questions “What?” or “Who?”.
Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, do not need an object to make sense. They can also answer other questions, but never What or Who, as the transitive ones. An example of an intransitive verb is to go. This verb can be followed by a noun answering the question Where? for example, but cannot answer the two questions above that we have seen for transitive verbs.
Also, when it comes to the passive voice in English, the subject performing the action can be introduced by the preposition by at the end of the sentence, but this is not often the case as very often the subject of the action is either not important or kept hidden for reasons of discretion as in the sentence: 1000 employees have been laid off by the multinational company (the company does not want other employees or the public to know by whom the employees were laid off).
Passive voice construction in English
As per the construction of the passive voice in English, here’s how it is structured:
Subject + conjugated verb to be + past participle of the main verb
To explain how to build a passive voice in a few words, the only things you need to do is conjugate the verb to be in the right tense and then add the past participle of the main verb.
For example, if an active sentence features a verb conjugated in the future tense, you will have to conjugate to be in the future tense to build the corresponding passive voice, and then add the past participle of the verb. In short, it is the main verb dictating the tense of the verb to be in the passive voice.
Constructing passive sentences with continuous or progressive tenses
Let’s take another example into account:
She is buying a new house at the seaside.
Besides congratulating the subject of our sentence for buying a house at the seaside, the first thing we can notice is that the verb to buy is a transitive one answering the question What? In this instance.
What is she buying? A new house. The verb has a direct object, hence it is a transitive one, meaning that it can also have a passive voice.
Second step. The new subject of our sentence in the passive voice will be the object of the sentence in the active voice – a new house.
We have previously said that it is the main verb deciding in which tense we will have to conjugate the verb to be in the passive voice. In this instance, the verb to buy was conjugated in the present continuous (or progressive) tense. In the passive voice, then, we have to conjugate the verb to be in the same tense – and this is how we get is being.
As already explained, the third element of the passive voice – after the subject and the verb to be – is the past participle of the main verb. The past participle of the verb to buy is an irregular one – bought.
If we put everything we have said so far together, we get our new sentence in the passive voice:
A new house is being bought (by her).
Our former subject is now at the end of the sentence, and is introduced by the preposition by.
Just a final note. Some sentences, even if they are in the passive voice, do not feature a “final” preposition like the example above. Think about the sentence “The debt has been paid”. In this case, the sentence makes perfect sense even if we do not focus on who was the one paying the debt!
See? The difference between the active and passive voices is quite easy to understand, and now you have all the tools to start building your sentences in the passive voice in English as well!