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Grammatical Voices

The grammatical voice describes the relationship between a verb and the participant (the subject or object) that the verb affects

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Grammatical Voices

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The grammatical voice describes the relationship between a verb and the participant (the subject or object) that the verb affects.

When the subject is completing the action the sentence is in the active voice (e.g. 'Tom painted the shed'). When the subject becomes the object, i.e. has the action done to them, the voice is passive (e.g. 'The shed was painted by Tom').

Let's delve deeper into these two grammatical voices.

What is the active voice?

The active voice is when the subject of a sentence is actively doing the verb. Sentences written in the active voice are seen as direct, clear, and have a strong tone. It is the most common grammatical voice used in the English language.

The dog ate the Christmas turkey

In this example, the subject (the dog) is doing the action (the verb 'ate') to the object (the turkey). The dog is the active participant in the sentence who is carrying out the action of the verb.

Other examples include:

  • The boy is feeding the ducks.
  • The receptionist will hand over the papers.
  • The cat chased the mouse.

In these examples, the subjects (the boy, the receptionist, and the cat) are all actively performing an action. They are active in the sentence and are carrying out the action of the verb themselves.

How do I recognise the active voice?

There is a basic structure that active voice sentences follow: subject + verb + object.

  • The boy (subject) is feeding (verb) the ducks (object).

  • The receptionist (subject) will hand over (verb) the papers (object).

  • The cat (subject) chased (verb) the mouse (object).

Grammatical voices, Image of cat and mouse, StudySmarterFig 1. The cat chased the mouse - how active!

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is the opposite of the active voice. A sentence is written in the passive voice when the subject is acted on by the verb/ action.

There are two types of passive voice sentences; short passive and long passive.

  • Short passive sentences do not contain an agent (i.e. the person or thing carrying out the action).

  • Long passive sentences do contain an agent, and the object of an active voice sentence becomes the subject of a passive long sentence.

Examples include:

  • The ducks are being fed by the boy. (long passive voice sentence)
  • The ducks are being fed. (short passive voice sentence)
  • The papers will be handed over by the receptionist. (long passive voice sentence)
  • The papers will be handed over. (short passive voice sentence)
  • The mouse was chased by the cat. (long passive voice sentence)
  • The mouse was chased. (short passive voice sentence)

How do I recognise the passive voice?

There is a clear structure for the passive voice. It will always contain:

A conjugated form of the verb 'to be' + a verb in the past participle form.

A preposition is sometimes included in the sentence, e.g. by. However, prepositions are not essential in the passive voice.

  • The ducks (subject) are being fed (present continuous form of 'to be' + past participle) by (preposition) the boy (object).

  • The mouse (subject) was chased (past form of 'to be' + past participle) by (preposition) the cat (object).

The importance of grammatical voice

Grammatical voice is one of the five verb properties in the English language. The five properties refer to the different ways a verb may change to give further information; these consist of mood, tense, person, number, and grammatical voice.

Grammatical voice is important as it gives further information about the relationship between an action (verb) and the actor (the one performing the action). It shows whether the subject (person/thing) is doing the action themselves or whether they are having the action done to them by someone/something else.

Uses of the active voice

In general, the active voice is more common than the passive voice, in both spoken and written language. We use the active voice to make what we're saying clearer and more engaging for the listener/reader.

When using the active voice it is clear who the subject is, what they did, and what the object is.

Uses of the passive voice

Some passive sentences are useful to show where the focus of the sentence is. Take a look at the following sentence: "The mouse was chased by the cat." If the mouse is the focus of the story, then it is better to use the passive voice in this sentence as it shows we are meant to be focusing on the mouse rather than the cat.

The passive voice can be used in situations where a person wishes to be vague (e.g. 'the money was taken'). It can also create a sense of objectivity. This is because the passive appears less personal and takes some responsibility away from the subject.

It can also be used as a way of being evasive or shifting the blame.

'The man broke the vase' - active voice

'The vase was broken (by the man)' - passive voice

In this example, the active voice clearly shows that the man was active in breaking the vase and that

he was responsible. In the passive voice. however, the man appears less active in breaking the vase and you can even omit the subject 'by the man' to avoid the blame. There is another explanation, and another reason for using the passive in this case: either we don't know who broke the vase, or it's not important.

Grammatical voices, Image of broken vase, StudySmarterFig 2. The vase was broken - it doesn't matter who by

We also use the passive voice in academic writing. This helps us to avoid using the personal pronoun 'I', which is frowned upon in academic writing. For example, 'I interviewed 15 people' can be written in the passive voice as '15 people were interviewed'.

Active voice vs passive voice examples

Below is a useful table showing the same sentence written in both the active and passive voice:

Active voice sentences Passive voice sentences
Lions roam the Serengeti.The Serengeti is roamed by lions.
Harry ate the mayonnaise.The mayonnaise was eaten by Harry.
Iyla drew a picture.The picture was drawn by Iyla.
Beth read a textbook.The textbook was read by Beth.
A chicken laid an egg.An egg was laid by a chicken.
Claire drank the coffee.The coffee was drunk by Claire.

Grammatical Voices - Key takeaways

  • There are two types of grammatical voice: active voice and passive voice.
  • The active voice shows that the subject is doing the action.
  • The passive voice shows that the subject is being acted on i.e. the subject is not doing the action themselves but having the action done to them by something else.
  • There are two types of passive voice sentences; short and long.
  • The active voice is more common, although the passive voice can be useful in certain instances - such as to draw focus on the object.

Frequently Asked Questions about Grammatical Voices

When the subject is completing the action (of the verb) the sentence is in the active voice. For example, in the sentence 'Tom painted the shed', the subject (Tom) is actively doing the verb (painted) to the object (shed). The active voice often follows the structure: subject + verb+ object.

An example of the active voice is 'the dog ate the Christmas turkey'. In this example, the subject (the dog) is actively doing the verb (ate) to the object (turkey). 

When the subject becomes the object, i.e., is having the action done to them, the voice is passive. For example, in the sentence 'the shed was painted by Tom', the subject (shed) is having the action (painted) done to them by the object (Tom). The subject is not actively doing action themselves.

An example of the passive voice is 'the Christmas turkey was eaten by the dog'. In this sentence, the subject (turkey) is having the action of the verb (eaten) done to them by the object (dog). 

Grammatical voice gives information about the relationship between an action (verb) and the actor (the one performing the action). It is one of the five verb properties in the English language.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Select the two types of grammatical voice! 

What does SVO stand for

True or false - passive voice is more common than active voice

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