What does ‘voice’ mean?

Voice is just another word for ‘action’ and who’s performing it. In active voice the subject performs the action. In passive voice the object performs the action.

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The standard order of a typical English sentence is Subject-Verb-Object, which means that every single sentence is in either active or passive voice. That’s right: EVERY. SINGLE. SENTENCE.

Active voice is a serious game changer

Voice simply means who’s performing the action. What most students don’t realise is that EVERY sentence you write (or speak) is in either active or passive voice. That’s right: EVERY. SINGLE. SENTENCE. And it’s for this reason that you need to be able to tell them apart.

Active voice is the secret you really want to know about, because if you don’t then you’re going to be left out of the loop in a big way.

In a grammarian’s world all the rules of grammar are equal. In a journalist’s world all the rules of grammar are ranked by level of importance from, “Yep, this rule’s important and I need to know it,” to “Nope, I can forget that one”.

Active voice gets the ding! ding! ding! in ranking—it’s top of the list. When it’s not used bells go off and the newsroom jumps to attention. Editors come running. So, what’s the big deal and why is it so important?


Voice is all about action and who’s performing it

It all comes down to “action” and who is performing it. In active voice the subject, which is at the front of the sentence, is performing the action. In passive voice the object, which is at the back of the sentence, is performing the action. In passive voice the action gets swapped around from the front of the sentence to the back.

In active voice the subject and the performer are the SAME. In passive voice the subject and performer are NOT the same. Why is this a problem? The whole purpose of a sentence is to tell you who or what is performing the action. It answers the question, what’s going on?

In active voice you know immediately who or what is performing the action because they’re at the front of the sentence. With passive voice you have to go right to the back of the sentence to learn who or what is performing the action. AND there is a chance the object (performer) can be left out of the sentence either by accident or on purpose. When the performer is left off the sentence, you don’t have all the information and you’re left guessing:

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Politicians are notorious for using passive voice when they want to ignore responsibility, e.g. “mistakes were made”. They don’t always want to say who was responsible for making the mistakes, except of course when it’s the opposition!


Is it wrong to use passive voice?

No. At times passive voice is the better option. Passive voice is used when the outcome or result is more important than the person or thing who performed the action. Such as:

    • A cure for cancer has been discovered by doctors. (passive voice)
    • Doctors discover a cure for cancer. (active voice)

 

The use of passive voice in the above example is the correct choice. A cure for cancer is a significant scientific breakthrough and one that will save lives. In the first instance, knowing that a cure has been discovered is far more important to the reader than knowing who made the discovery.

Passive voice is often used in scientific reports where the results of the experiments are the focus of attention and not the person who performed them.


Passive voice uses more words

Another important point you need to know is that passive voice uses two extra words for every sentence, which all adds up over a paragraph or page. Passive voice can be a bit like wearing a pair of gumboots: they’re okay for a short walk but you wouldn’t want to run a marathon in them. Too much passive voice makes your writing longwinded and laboured, so learn to keep an eye on it.

ACTIVE VOICE (FEWER WORDS) PASSIVE VOICE (MORE WORDS)
Australia beat England. (3 words used) England was beaten by Australia. (5 words used)
A parent must sign the permission note. (7 words used) The permission note must be signed by a parent. (9 words used)

 


How can you tell the difference between active and passive voice?

There’s only one way you can tell them apart and it involves some grammar so we’ll try to keep it as simple as possible. The easiest voice to identify is passive voice, which is the one you want to avoid most of the time.

RULE: Passive voice contains one of the eight forms of the verb ‘be’ plus a past participle. It sounds confusing but it’s not. It’s fairly easy to get your head around if you learn it in two steps.


Step 1. – Learn to identify ‘be’

The verb ‘be’ is an irregular verb and has EIGHT different forms. Why? No one knows and no one really cares, and the reasons aren’t important right now. However, what is important is that you can recognise all of the EIGHT different forms of ‘be’ by sight. Learning all EIGHT forms isn’t optional—it’s a must because ‘be’ is the most important component to passive voice.

The EIGHT forms are: be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were.

There are times when a picture is worth a thousand words and this is one of those times. The image below is a visual tool designed to help you memorise all of the EIGHT forms. Look at each word as you say it; say the word aloud, and tap or clap as you say each word. And yes, we realise that clapping like an energetic kindy kid would be soooooo embarrassing and at odds with your carefully maintained image. BUT it’s guaranteed to work and you’ll learn it in 10 minutes or less (and no one needs to see you do this, unless of course you post a selfie).


The ‘be’ verbs—here’s a visual
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Step 2. – Look for the –ed ending

First find ‘be’ in the sentence and then look at the word directly to the right of it. If the word is a verb and ends in –ed then you have passive voice. Bingo! It’s that easy.

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Unfortunately, not all verbs end in –ed. Regular verbs do (which are most verbs), however irregular verbs don’t. There are about 200 irregular verbs that don’t end in –ed. For example: bitten, caught, driven, eaten, found, given, led, made, put, swum, written etc. (The vocabulary box on the home page has a complete list of irregular verbs showing past tense and past participle if you’re interested.)

For the purposes of learning passive voice you can pretty much get away with just knowing that if the verb next to ‘be’ is in the past tense then it’s passive voice.


The hard and fast rule of passive voice

Trying to learn the endings for over 200 irregular verbs may prove quite a task. The easiest solution is to learn all EIGHT forms of ‘be’ and then look to the right of ‘be’. If the word next to ‘be’ is a verb and is in the past tense then the odds are you’re looking at passive voice. It really is that simple.

Step 1. Look for ‘be’ in any one of its EIGHT forms (be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were). Be is ALWAYS a component of passive voice.

Step 2. Is another VERB DIRECTLY TO THE RIGHT OF BE? Is that verb showing past tense? Does it end in –ed?

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It’s not passive voice when …

The verb next to ‘be’ is in PRESENT tense and ends in –ing.

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Remember: for passive voice the verb next to be MUST be showing the past.


What does tense mean?

The term ‘tense’ is just another word for ‘time’. As well as performing the action, a verb also tells the time in the sentence by indicating whether something occurred in the past, present or future.

Past tense and past particles are little signals in the language that give us clues as to when (and how far back in time) something happened.


What’s the difference between past tense and past participle?

Past tense and past participle are both in the past (duh!). The difference is the degree of how far back in the past they are. A part participle indicates something is further back in time than past tense. A past participle started and finished before a past tense began.

Imagine it’s a school day, it’s 3pm and time to go home. Then think back to breakfast and lunch, you’ve eaten both of them already, right? That means they’re both in the past. You finished your breakfast before you ate your lunch. That’s how past tense and past participle work, you finished one thing (breakfast) before you started the other (lunch).

Past participle is further back in time than past tense. Think of past participle as being the breakfast and past tense the lunch.

The list below shows irregular verbs only.


Past tense and Past Participle—here’s a visual

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PAST PARTICIPLE PAST TENSE PRESENT AND FUTURE TENSE
begun began begin begins beginning
bitten bit bite bites biting
chosen chose choose chooses choosing
come came come comes coming
done did do does doing
drunk drank drink drinks drinking
driven drove drive drives driving
eaten ate eat eats eating
forgotten forgot forget forgets forgetting
forgiven forgave forgive forgives forgiving
given gave give gives giving
gone went go goes going
known knew know knows knowing
lain (I had lain down) lay (I lay down) lie (to recline) lies lying
lied (he had lied to me) lied (I lied to him) lie (an untruth) lies lying
mistaken mistook mistake mistakes mistake
rung rang ring rings ringing
sung sang sing sings singing
spoken spoke speak speaks speaking
stung stung sting stings stinging
stunk stank stink stinks stinking
sworn swore swear swears swearing
swum swam swim swims swimming
taken took take takes taking
woken woke wake wakes waking
written wrote write writes writing

 


Passive Voice—here’s a visual
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IMPORTANT POINT: When grammar books and dictionaries refer to ‘be’ they are referring to ALL EIGHT FORMS and not just ‘be’. For example, if you look up ‘are’ and ‘was’ in the dictionary it will tell you it’s ‘be’.

Grammarians love to joke with students by point to ‘is’ and calling it ‘be’. They know it’s confusing but think it’s hilarious (yep, we think grammarians are pretty weird too).


Passive voice can cost you marks

Journalists can swap between active and passive voice in the blink of an eye because they’re trained to do so. However, for students care needs to be taken when using passive voice. If you’re not trained to use passive voice then you can accidently leave out important information and not answer the question. It’ås a common mistake students make and one that costs marks. So, be careful when you use passive voice and make sure you include ALL the necessary information, e.g. I was shocked (by what?). I was shocked by his behaviour. Jack is finished (what?). Jack is finished the test. Remember, you must always answer the question.


Why do irregular verbs have different endings?

What’s the point of past tense and past participle? When it comes to regular verbs nothing really, as they’re both the same and all end in either –d or –ed. However, irregular verbs are different. Past tense and past participle verbs are completely different words and at times don’t even look similar. So, why are they different?

Without getting into a deep and meaningful lesson on the origin of the language (but we will), English has borrowed a lot of words from other countries. Long before England went on to invade and colonise half the world (and leave them with the thrilling game of cricket), it was itself invaded by other countries.

The original speakers of Old English were the Jutes, Angles and Saxons who invaded and conquered Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. The new invaders spoke Germanic (a type of German) and Norse (Danish). The Danes loved England so much that Cnut, the Danish king ruled England from 1014 to 1035.

The invaders brought with them hundreds of news words and many of which are still used today (although the spelling has changed): abide, above, anger, awake, bag, ball, bark, berserk, choose, egg, die, if, in, it, husband, kiss, knife, knot, laugh, mistake, of, on, quick, read, reindeer, ride, rotten, say, see, they, them, their, Thursday, troll, up, us.

In 1066 the Normans (French) invaded and they brought Latin words and thousands of French words, particularly words associated with food. For example, the names of several animals are English when they are alive—ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, boar, deer—but French when they are dead and served up on a table—beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, brawn, venison. (The French rock when it comes to euphemisms.)

So, back to verb tense… this is the reason why not all verbs end in –d or –ed, because they’re from other languages. And as annoying as it is, there’s nothing we can do to change it as the dictionaries are already printed. You just have to know that some verbs end in –ed and others don’t.


Regular verbs

With regular verbs, the past tense simply adds an “ed” to the end of the word. Both past tense and past particle have the same ending.

PAST PARTICIPLE PAST TENSE PRESENT AND FUTURE TENSE
jumped jumped jump jumps jumping
laughed laughed laugh laughs laughing
rained rained rain rains raining
stopped stopped stop stops stopping
wrapped wrapped wrap wraps wrapping