The term voice, as a linguistic category, indicates the relationship between the subject of a sentence and its verb. In English, there are two voices — active and passive. If the subject of a sentence performs the action of the verb, the verb is said to in the active voice; for example:
The active voice is considered the normal and preferred relationship in English sentences. On the other hand, if the subject is acted upon by the verb, the verb is said to be in the passive voice. There are two ways of casting a verb in the passive voice in English so as to cause the subject to be acted upon by its verb. The foremost way is by using a form of the verb to be with the past participle of a verb, such as in the following examples:
I was stopped. (someone stopped me.)
I was bathed. (someone bathed me.)
This is the more common way of the two. It appears in all levels of English and its only restriction is that the verb must be transitive. The second and less common way, is by using a form of the verb to get with the past participle of a verb:
I got stopped. (someone stopped me.)
This second variant is often called the get-passive. It is used in less formal situations, and its use is restricted to a small number of verbs; for example, get killed, get stuck, get hurt, get burned, get shot, get arrested, get paid.
The Structure of the Passive Voice
As previously stated, the passive voice in English is formed by combining a form of the verb to be with the past participle of a transitive verb.
I will stop
I would stop
to have stopped
I have stopped
I had stopped
I will have stopped
I would have stopped
to be stopped
I am stopped
I was stopped
I will be stopped
I would be stopped
to have been stopped
I have been stopped
I had been stopped
I will have been stopped
I would have been stopped
Theoretically, passive voice constructions can appear in any form, but in actual practice with progressive forms, they seem to be confined mostly to the present and past tenses.
I am stopping
I was stopping
I am being stopped
I was being stopped
Passive voice constructions are also used with modal auxiliary verbs, such as in the following examples
I can stop
I could stop
I may stop
I might stop
I must stop
I should stop
I can be stopped
I could be stopped
I may be stopped
I might be stopped
I must be stopped
I should be stopped
Notice that the passive-voice construction always appears after the modal auxiliary verbs.
Use of the Passive Voice
The more common voice construction in English is the active voice; however, there are three times when the passive voice is the structure of choice for speakers and writers.
The passive voice allows speakers and writers to keep discourse topics in the subject position over successive clauses while adding new information in the remainder of the clause. Note these two examples.
I had just finished paying off my new car when it was towed by the police. Then, on the way to the towing compound, it was rammed by a truck and demolished.
The first electronic computer was built in England during World War II. It was called the the Colossus, and it was used to decipher Adolf Hitler’s confidential messages to his generals. After the war, it was destroyed so that the world would not learn how the British broke codes. Presently, it is being reconstructed at Bletchley Park in England where it can be viewed by visitors.
The passive voice allows speakers and writers not to mention an agent, especially when information about the agent is unknown, unimportant, obvious, confidential, or difficult to identify.
My car was stolen.
A decision has been made.
Much tobacco is grown in Eastern Europe.
A new president has been elected.
Both French and English are spoken in Canada.
The Passive voice allows speakers and writers to place emphasis on receivers of an action by placing them at the beginning of a sentence.
Thirteen people were injured by a tornado in Florida.
I was robbed.
Agents in a Passive Voice Construction
The majority of passive sentences in English do not include explicit agents to indicate exactly who performed the actions, however agents exist; and they can be indicated, if need be, by a prepositional phrase beginning with by.
My car was stolen by someone.
A decision has been made by the group.
Much tobacco is grown in Eastern Europe by farmers.
A new president has been elected by the voters.
Both French and English are spoken in Canada by the populace.
These sentences can virtually always be recast in the active voice with the agent moved to the subject position and with no essential change of meaning.
Someone stole my car.
The group has made a decision.
Farmers grow much tobacco in Eastern Europe.
The voters have elected a new president.
The populace speaks both French and English in Canada.
Although most passive voice sentences in English do not include agents, there are three narrow instances when speakers and writers tend to express them.
The agent is expressed when it is a proper name indicating an artist, an inventor, a discoverer, or an innovator.
The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.
The first electronic computer was built by Tomas Flowers.
The American continent was discovered by Christopher Columbus.
Rubber was first vulcanised by Charles Goodyear.
The agent is expressed when it is an indefinite noun conveying new information that the speaker or writer thinks is important enough to mention.
These works of art were all produced by women.
The corner store was robbed by a masked gunman.
The agent is expressed when it is an unexpected inanimate noun.
Thirteen people were injured by a tornado in Florida.
All the lights in this building are controlled by computers.
Summary of Passive Voice
In summary, passive-voice constructions exhibit the following properties:
They contain a form of the verb to be (or to get) plus a past participle of a transitive verb.
They express an action carried out on the subject of the sentence.
They contain an agent, either expressed or more frequently unexpressed.
They can almost always be rewritten in the active voice with the agent moved to the subject position with no essential change of meaning.
Stative Passive Constructions
There exists in English an adjectival construction that resembles the passive voice superficially and is different in meaning. It is a construction using the verb to be with an adjective that is identical in form to a past participle. See these examples:
The bank was closed all day yesterday. (It was not open.)
I was married for ten years. (I was not single.)
When I entered the room, I noticed that the chair was broken (It was not intact)
My PC was connected to the internet all last year, and it never incurred a single virus. (It had a connection; it was not disconnected)
Although these constructions look identical to a passive voice construction, they do not express an action carried out on the subject of the sentence, they do not contain an explicit or implied agent, and they cannot be rewritten in the active voice. They merely describe the state or condition of the subject of the sentence. And because they describe the state or condition of the subject of the sentence while resembling passive constructions superficially, some linguists call these constructions stative passives. Most stative passives have true passive counterparts as well, as in the four examples below:
The bank was closed at exactly 3 o’clock. (somebody closed it.)
This sentence clearly describes an action and can include a by-phrase, such as in “The bank was closed at exactly 3 o’clock by a security guard.” Its active counterpart would be, “A security guard closed the bank at exactly 3 o’clock.”
I was married in that chapel. (I had a wedding ceremony.)
This sentence also describes an action and can accept a by-phrase: “I was married in that chapel by a justice of the peace.” Its active counterpart would be “A justice of the peace married me in that chapel last year.” This is a true passive voice construction.
The chair was broken by the weight of the sumo wrestler, when he sat down.
The active counterpart would be, “The weight of the sumo wrestler broke the chair when he sat down.”
My PC was connected to the internet just a few minutes ago, and it already has a virus. (received a connection; became connected)
The active variant would be “Somebody connected my PC to the internet…”
As you can see, the context is the determining factor as to whether an action or a state is being described.
A salient type of stative passive construction is the combination of the verb to be with adjectives that describe an emotional state. There are about three dozen of them in common use. They are derived from verbs and are identical in form to past participles, most of them ending in ed; but instead of indicating an action, they refer to the experiencing of an emotion.
Note these examples:
I was bored
I was depressed
I was exhausted
I was interested
I was tired
I was relieved
I was satisfied
I was shocked
I was disgusted
(I felt bored)
(I felt depressed)
(I felt exhausted)
(I felt interested)
(I felt tired)
(I felt relieved)
(I felt satisfied)
(I felt shocked)
(I felt disgusted)
Analogous to an agent by-phrase, these adjectives most often take a range of prepositions to connect them to the cause of the emotion.
I was exhausted from so much work.
I was interested in computers.
I was bored with my classes.
I was tired of hearing so many excuses.
I was relieved at the outcome of the election.
I was depressed over my divorce.
I was satisfied with my progress.
I was shocked at your behaviour.
Occasionally, however, even some of these constructions may have a true passive interpretation.
I was shocked by your behaviour.
In which case it could have an active counterpart of “Your behaviour shocked me.”
Summary of True Passive-Voice Constructions, Versus Stative-Passive Constructions
The important points to remember when you want to compare these two constructions are the following:
In true passive constructions, an action is carried out on the subject of the sentence, there is an agent either expressed or unexpressed, there exists an active voice counterpart.
In stative passive constructions, the state or condition of the subject of the sentence is described, there is no agent,
there is no active voice counterpart.
Not all true passive voice constructions have stative passive counterparts, but many, many do.