Voice (grammar)

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In grammar, the voice (also called diathesis and (rarely) gender (of verbs)[1]) of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, the verb is said to be in the passive voice.

For example, in the sentence:

The cat ate the mouse.

The verb "ate" is in the active voice, but in the sentence:

The mouse was eaten by the cat.

The verbal phrase "was eaten" is passive.


The hunter killed the bear.

The verb "killed" is in the active voice, and the doer of the action is the "hunter". To make this passive:

The bear was killed by the hunter.

The verbal phrase "was killed" is followed by the word "by" and then by the doer "hunter".

In a transformation from an active-voice clause to an equivalent passive-voice construction, the subject and the direct object switch grammatical roles. The direct object gets promoted to subject, and the subject demoted to an (optional) complement. In the examples above, the mouse serves as the direct object in the active-voice version, but becomes the subject in the passive version. The subject of the active-voice version, the cat, becomes part of a prepositional phrase in the passive version of the sentence, and could be left out entirely.


In the traditional grammar of Ancient Greek, voice was called διάθεσις (diáthesis) "arrangement" or "condition", with three subcategories: active (ἐνέργεια [enérgeia]), passive (πάθος [páthos]), middle (μεσότης [mesótēs]).[2][3] In Latin there are five voices (Latin: genera verborum, sg. genus verbi): active, passive, neuter, common and deponent (Latin: [genus] activum, passivum, neutrum, commune, deponens).[4]


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The active voice is the most commonly used in many languages and represents the "normal" case, in which the subject of the verb is the agent.

In the active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action or causes the happening denoted by the verb.


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The passive voice is employed in a clause whose subject expresses the theme or patient of the verb. That is, it undergoes an action or has its state changed.[5]

In the passive voice the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the doer) of the action denoted by the verb.

The Spanish language and the English language use a periphrastic passive voice; that is, it is not a single word form, but rather a construction making use of other word forms. Specifically, it is made up of a form of the auxiliary verb to be and a past participle of the main verb. In other languages, such as Latin, the passive voice is simply marked on the verb by inflection: librum legit "He reads the book"; liber legitur "The book is read".


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Some languages (such as Albanian, Bengali, Fula, Tamil, Sanskrit, Icelandic, Swedish and Ancient Greek) have a middle voice, which is a set of inflections or constructions which is to some extent different from both the active and passive voices. The middle voice is said to be in the middle between the active and the passive voices because the subject often cannot be categorized as either agent or patient but may have elements of both. For example, it may express what would be an intransitive verb in English. In The casserole cooked in the oven, cooked is syntactically active but semantically passive. In Classical Greek, the middle voice often has a reflexive sense: the subject acts on or for itself, such as "The boy washes himself", or "The boy washes". It can be transitive or intransitive. It can occasionally be used in a causative sense, such as "The father causes his son to be set free", or "The father ransoms his son".

In English there is no verb form for the middle voice, though some uses may be classified as middle voice, often resolved via a reflexive pronoun, as in "Fred shaved", which may be expanded to "Fred shaved himself" – contrast with active "Fred shaved John" or passive "John was shaved by Fred". This need not be reflexive, as in "my clothes soaked in detergent overnight". English used to have a distinct form, called the passival, which was displaced over the early 19th century by the passive progressive (progressive passive), and is no longer used in English.[6][7] In the passival, one would say "the house is building", which is today instead "the house is being built"; likewise "the meal is eating", which is now "the meal is being eaten". Note that the similar "Fred is shaving" and "the clothes are soaking" remain grammatical. It is suggested that the progressive passive was popularized by the Romantic poets, and is connected with Bristol usage.[6][8]

Many deponent verbs in Latin are survivals of the Proto-Indo-European middle voice.[citation needed]


Some languages have even more grammatical voices. For example, Classical Mongolian features five voices: active, passive, causative, reciprocal, and cooperative. Hebrew has active, passive, causative, intensive and reflexive voices.

The antipassive voice deletes or demotes the object of transitive verbs, and promotes the actor to an intransitive subject. This voice is very common among ergative–absolutive languages (which may feature passive voices as well), but also occurs among nominative–accusative languages.

There are also constructions in some languages that appear to change the valence of a verb, but in fact do not. So called hierarchical or inversion languages are of this sort. Their agreement system will be sensitive to an external person or animacy hierarchy (or a combination of both): 1 > 2 > 3 or Anim > Inan and so forth. E.g., in Meskwaki (an Algonquian language), verbs inflect for both subject and object, but agreement markers do not have inherent values for these. Rather, a third marker, the direct or inverse marker, indicates the proper interpretation: ne-wa:pam-e:-w-a [1-look.at-DIR-3-3Sg] "I am looking at him", but ne-wa:pam-ekw-w-a [1-look.at-INV-3-3Sg] "He is looking at me". Some scholars (notably Rhodes) have analyzed this as a kind of obligatory passivization dependent on animacy, while others have claimed it is not a voice at all, but rather see inversion as another type of alignment, parallel to nominative–accusative, ergative–absolutive, split-S, and fluid-S alignments.

Passive in topic-prominent languages

Topic-prominent languages like Mandarin tend not to employ the passive voice as frequently. Mandarin-speakers construct the passive voice by using the coverb 被 (bèi) and rearranging the usual word order.[9] For example, this sentence using active voice:

Note: the first line is in Traditional Chinese while the second is Simplified Chinese.

咬了 這個 男人。
咬了 这个 男人。
Gǒu yǎo-le zhège nánrén.
dog bite-PERFECT this man
"A dog has bitten this man."

corresponds to the following sentence using passive voice. Note that the agent phrase is optional.

這個 男人 (狗) 咬了。
这个 男人 (狗) 咬了。
Zhège nánrén bèi (gǒu) yǎo-le.
This man BEI dog bite-PERFECT.
"This man has been bitten (by a dog)."

In addition, through the addition of the auxiliary verb "to be" (shì) the passive voice is frequently used to emphasise the identity of the actor. This example places emphasis on the dog, presumably as opposed to some other animal:

這個 男人 咬了。
这个 男人 咬了。
Zhège nánrén shì bèi gǒu yǎo-le.
This man to be BEI dog bite-PERFECT.
"This man has been bitten by a dog."

Although a topic-prominent language, Japanese employs the passive voice quite frequently, and has two types of passive voice, one that corresponds to that in English and an indirect passive not found in English. This indirect passive is used when something undesirable happens to the speaker.

泥棒 財布 盗まれた。
Kare wa dorobō ni saifu o nusumareta.
"His wallet was stolen by a thief."
彼女 つかれた。
Boku wa kanojo ni uso o tsukareta.
"I was lied to by her." (or "She lied to me.")

Fourth person in Finnic languages

Some languages do not contrast voices, but have other similar constructions. For example, Finnic languages such as Finnish and Estonian have a "passive", expressed by conjugating the verb in "common person". Although it is generally referred to as the passive ("passiivi") in Finnish grammars, it may more appropriately be referred to as the fourth person form of a verb.

The function of the fourth person is simply to leave out the agent. The agent is almost always human and never mentioned. The grammatical role of the object remains unaltered, and thus transitivity may also be used. For example, the fourth-person construction Ikkuna hajotettiin, with a transitive verb, means "Someone broke the window", while the third-person construction Ikkuna hajosi uses the anticausative and means "The window broke".

Impersonal in Celtic languages

Celtic languages possess an inflection commonly called the "impersonal" or "autonomous" form,[10] of similar origin[citation needed] to the Latin "passive-impersonal". This is similar to a passive construction in that the agent of the verb is not specified. However its syntax is different from prototypical passives, in that the object of the action remains in the accusative.[11]

It is similar to the use of the pronoun "on" in French. It increasingly corresponds to the passive in modern English, in which there is a trend towards avoiding the use of the passive unless it is specifically required to omit the subject. It also appears to be similar to the "fourth person" mentioned in the preceding paragraph. However, what is called in Irish an briathar saor or the free verb does not suggest passivity but a kind of generalised agency.

The construction has equal validity in transitive and intransitive clauses, and the best translation into English is normally by using the "dummy" subjects "they", "one", or impersonal "you". For example, the common sign against tobacco consumption has its closest direct translation in English as "No smoking":

caitear tabac
Don't use-impersonal tobacco.

An example of its use as an intransitive is:

Téithear go dtí an sráidbhaile go minic Dé Sathairn
Go-impersonal to the village often Saturday

"People often go to the village of a Saturday."

The difference between the autonomous and a true passive is that while the autonomous focuses on the action and overtly avoids mentioning the actor, there is nonetheless an anonymous agent who may be referred to in the sentence. For instance[12]

Théití ag ithe béile le chéile
go [PAST-HABIT-AUT] eat [PROG] meal with each other
People used to go eating a meal together

In English, the formation of the passive allows the optional inclusion of an agent in a prepositional phrase, "by the man", etc. Where English would leave out the noun phrase, Irish uses the autonomous; where English includes the noun phrase, Irish uses its periphrastic passive - which can also leave out the noun phrase:

The tobacco was smoked (by the man)
Bhí an tabac caite (ag an bhfear)
Was the tobacco consumed (by the man)

The impersonal endings have been re-analysed as a passive voice in Modern Welsh and the agent can be included after the preposition gan (by):

Cenir y gân gan y côr.
The song is sung by the choir.

Dynamic and static passive

Some linguists draw a distinction between static (or stative) passive voice and dynamic (or eventive) passive voice in some languages. Examples include English, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian. "Static" means that an action was done to the subject at a certain point in time resulting in a state in the time focussed upon, whereas "dynamic" means that an action takes place.


  • Static passive auxiliary verb: sein
  • Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: werden
Der Rasen ist gemäht ("The lawn is mown", static)
Der Rasen wird gemäht ("The lawn is being mown", literally "The lawn becomes mown", dynamic)


  • Static passive auxiliary verb: be (the "be-passive")
  • Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: get (the "get-passive")

Note that for some speakers of English this is not accepted and is considered colloquial or sub-standard.

The grass is cut (static)
The grass gets cut or The grass is being cut (dynamic)


  • Static passive auxiliary verb: vara (är, var, varit)
  • Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: bli (blir, blev, blivit)

Dynamic passive in Swedish is also frequently expressed with the s-ending.

Dörren är öppnad. "The door has been opened."
Dörren blir öppnad. "The door is being opened."

The vara passive is often synonymous with, and sometimes preferable to, simply using the corresponding adjective:

Dörren är öppen. "The door is open."

The bli passive is often synonymous with, and sometimes preferable to, the s-passive:

Dörren öppnas. "The door is opening."


Spanish has two verbs corresponding to English to be: ser and estar. Ser is used to form the ordinary (dynamic) passive voice:

La puerta es abierta. "The door is [being] opened [by someone]."
La puerta es cerrada. "The door is [being] closed [by someone]."

(Note that this construction is very unidiomatic in this case. The usual phrasing would be La puerta se cierra.) Estar is used to form what might be termed a static passive voice (not regarded as a passive voice in traditional Spanish grammar):

La puerta está abierta. "The door is open.", i.e. it has been opened.
La puerta está cerrada. "The door is closed.", i.e. it has been closed.

In both cases, the verb's participle is used as the complement (as is sometimes the case in English).


Italian uses two verbs (essere and venire) to translate the static and the dynamic passive:

Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: essere and venire (to be and to come)

La porta è aperta. or La porta viene aperta. "The door is opened [by someone]" or "The door comes open [by someone]".
La porta è chiusa. or La porta viene chiusa. "The door is closed [by someone]" or "The door comes closed [by someone]".

Static passive auxiliary verb: essere (to be)

La porta è aperta. "The door is open," i.e. it has been opened.
La porta è chiusa. "The door is closed," i.e. it has been closed.


In Venetian (Vèneto) the difference between dynamic (true) passive and stative (adjectival) passive is more clear cut, using èser (to be) only for the static passives and vegner (to become, to come) only for the dynamic passive:

Ła porta ła vien verta. "The door is opened", dynamic
Ła porta ła xè / l'è verta. "The door is open", static

Static forms represents much more a property or general condition, whereas the dynamic form is a real passive action entailing "by someone":

èser proteto. "To be protected = to be in a safe condition", static
vegner proteto. "To be protected = to be defended (by so)", dynamic
èser considarà. "To be considered = to have a (good) reputation", static
vegner considarà. "To be taken into consideration (by people, by so)", dynamic
èser raprexentà (a l'ONU). "To be represented (at the UN) = to have a representation", static
vegner raprexentà a l'ONU (da un dełegà). "To be represented at the UN (by a delegate)", dynamic


Voices found in various languages include:

See also


  1. E.g. in Robert S. P. Beekes' Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (1995)
  2. Dionysius Thrax. τέχνη γραμματική (Art of Grammar). ιγ´ περὶ ῥήματος (13. On the verb).
  3. διάθεσις. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
  4. Aelius Donatus in his Ars Minor (De Verbo): "Genera verborum quot sunt? Quinque. Quae? Activa passiva neutra deponentia communia."
    Maurus Servius Honoratus in his Commentarius in Artem Donati: "Verborum genera quinque sunt, activa passiva neutra communia deponentia."
  5. O'Grady, William, John Archibald, Mark Aronoff, and Janie Rees-Miller (eds.) (2001). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction Fourth edition. Boston: Bedord/St. Martin's. ISBN 0-312-24738-9
  6. 6.0 6.1 “The House is Building”? Why you never learned the passival tense, even though it used to be proper English grammar., by Mike Vuolo, Slate, May 29, 2012
  7. A peeve for the ages, January 13, 2011
  8. Platt and Denison, "The language of the Southey-Coleridge Circle", Language Sciences 2000
  9. Li & Thompson (1981)
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