Active and passive
Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?
- The council workers cleared the path.
- The path was cleared by the council workers.
The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.
In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).
We say that the first sentence uses the active voice, in which the Subject is an agent who does something to the Object. The latter expresses the patient (undergoer). The second sentence uses the passive voice, in which the Subject is the patient and the agent ends up in the by-phrase (by the council workers). Here are some further examples:
- Falco was being marked by Pallister and Irwin. [S2A-003 #119]
- For centuries these birds have been admired by farmers and country people. [S2B-031 #86]
- Tokyo's normally teeming streets have been cleared by 37,000 police. [W2C-008 #46]
Voice is a useful concept to understand because it can be used by writers to shift the focus of what they are writing about. It can also be used to conceal who carried out the action denoted by the verb. The example below illustrates this:
- A mistake has been made.
Here the writer or speaker did not specify who made the mistake, and perhaps they did so deliberately to hide who this person was. This is called an agentless passive.
How are passive sentences formed? Consider these examples and their passive counterparts:
- All the other players mobbed me. [W2C-014 #16]
- I was mobbed by all the other players.
- Allied bombers have flown more than five hundred sorties against nuclear chemical and biological weapons facilities in Iraq. [S2B-001 #7
- More than five hundred sorties against nuclear chemical and biological weapons facilities in Iraq were flown by Allied bombers. [S2B-001 #7]
Here we see that the passive voice is formed by making the Object of the active clause the Subject of the passive clause. In addition we need to use the auxiliary verb be followed by a past participle.
Many active clauses have no corresponding passive. An example is This house has five bedrooms. We cannot passivise this to Five bedrooms are had by this house.
Notice also that clauses which contain an intransitive verb (i.e. a verb without an Object) also do not have passive versions. So the sentence She laughed cannot become passive because here there is no noun phrase following the verb which could become the Subject of a passive clause.
In matching active/passive pairs, it is usually the Direct Object of the active that matches the Subject in the passive, as in the examples we’ve looked at so far.
But it can also be another element such as an Indirect Object, e.g.:
- active: I’ve given you the answers already.
- passive: You’ve been given the answers already. [S1B-004 #157]
In some cases the past participle form of the verb is hard to recognise, as in the following example:
- It is being put up for sale. [W2C-020 #39]
The reason is that the past participle of the verb put has the same spelling and pronunciation as the present tense and past tense forms.
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