Passive Voice

By John-Allen Payne, Ph.D.
The National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

This is an on-line reading copy, best viewed in the Internet Explorer Browser. For a printable copy of this article, click here. And for a modular version of this article with interactive learning aids, please refer to http://www.rit.edu/~seawww/passivevoice/psintroduction.html.

Introduction

The passive voice is an important grammatical structure that appears in every form of written and spoken English. Knowledge of this construction is vital for reading and writing English in everyday life. Research studies indicate that although hearing children usually master this construction by eight or nine years of age (Baldie, 1976), many deaf children as old as 17 and 18 have still failed to master it completely (Quigley, et al. 1977). Moreover, experienced teachers in postsecondary programs for deaf students know that this failure to completely master the passive voice extends into the college years as well. Passive voice constructions can be especially insidious, for failure to understand them correctly can actually lead to a misinterpretation of vital information.

This article will first present a brief description of the passive voice and how it is used in English language discourse. Second, it will summarize three seminal research studies into deaf children's comprehension and production of passive voice sentences. Third, it will offer some guided practice to improve the reader's recognition of passive voice sentences. Finally, it will suggest several ways that teachers may enhance students' comprehension of passive voice structures.

Overview of Passive Voice

Definition

The term voice, as a linguistic category, indicates the relationship between the subject of a sentence and its verb (Merriam-Webster, 1993). 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,

I stopped.
I bathed.

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. Get-passive constructions will not be discussed in this article because there seems to be little definitive information about them except to say that their use is highly restricted; moreover, they do not seem to be as problematic for deaf students as be-passive constructions. For a thorough treatment of get-passive constructions, see Yim (1998).

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. Its overall structure and its contrast with the active voice is probably easier to see if they are displayed in a paradigm of traditional English verb tenses.

Simple Forms:

Infinitive
present
past
future
conditional

perfect infinitive
present perfect
past perfect
future perfect
conditional perfect

Active Voice:

to stop
I stop
I stopped
I will stop
I would stop

to have stopped
I have stopped
I had stopped
I will have stopped
I would have stopped

Passive Voice:

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.

Progressive Forms:

Present
Past

Active Voice:

I am stopping
I was stopping

Passive Voice:

I am being stopped
I was being stopped

Passive voice constructions are also used with modal auxiliary verbs, such as in the following examples

Modal Verbs:

can
could
may
might
must
should

Active Voice:

I can stop
I could stop
I may stop
I might stop
I must stop
I should stop

Passive Voice:

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

As stated previously, 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 (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983; Robinson, 2000):

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. The Passive voice allows speakers and writers to place emphasis on receivers of an action by placing them at the beginning of a sentence.

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 (Shintani, 1979 in Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983, pg. 225); however, agents exist; and they can be indicated, if need be, by a prepositional phrase beginning with by.

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.

Although most passive voice sentences in English do not include agents, there are three narrow instances when speakers and writers tend to express them (Shintani, 1979):

1. The agent is expressed when it is a proper name indicating an artist, an inventor, a discoverer, or an innovator.

2. The agent is expressed when it is an indefinite noun conveying new information that the speaker/writer thinks is important enough to mention.

3. The agent is expressed when it is an unexpected inanimate noun.

Summary of Passive Voice

In summary, passive-voice constructions exhibit the following properties:

Stative Passive Constructions

There exists in English an adjectival construction that resembles the passive voice superficially and is different in meaning; and it is important that teachers of deaf students recognize it. It is a construction using the verb to be with an adjective that is identical in form to a past participle. See these examples:

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 (Celse-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983). Most stative passives have true passive counterparts as well, as in the four examples below:

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 satsfied)
(=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 behavior

Occasionally, however, even some of these constructions may have a true passive interpretation.

I was shocked by your behavior

In which case it could have an active counterpart of "Your behavior 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:

  1. In true passive constructions,
  2. In stative passive constructions,

Not all true passive voice constructions have stative passive counterparts, but many, many do. And as teachers involved in the instruction of deaf individuals, it is important that you perceive the distinction between these two identical-looking constructions. In that way, you can intervene more successfully if a student has difficulty interpreting them.

Research Findings

Subtypes of Passive Voice Constructions

A small body of research exists that examines deaf children's acquisition of passive constructions that use the verb to be with a past participle. Three salient studies are presented here. For the purpose of understanding deaf children's acquisition of the passive voice, it is useful to divide passive constructions into three subtypes.

  1. Reversible passive constructions
  2. Nonreversible passive constructions
  3. Agentless passive constructions

A reversible passive is a passive construction in which the subject can be exchanged with the agent in the by-phrase and still leave a correct logical sentence albeit with the opposite meaning. Note the following example:

The detectives were tricked by the computer hacker.

If the subject and the agent in the by-phrase were reversed like this: "The computer hacker was tricked by the detectives," The sentence would still make logical sense. Most reversible passive constructions contain animate nouns in both the subject position and in the by-phrase.

A nonreversible passive is a passive construction in which the subject can not be exchanged with the agent in the by-phrase and still leave a correct logical sentence. For example,

The whole mainframe system was destroyed by a malicious young hacker.

If this sentence were expressed as, "A young hacker was destroyed by the whole mainframe system." It would never make sense; hence, it is nonreversible.

An agentless passive is a passive construction that does not include the agent by-phrase, such as in the following two sentences.

The detectives were tricked.
The whole mainframe system was destroyed.

The agentless passive is, of course, the most common of the three subtypes.

Comprenehsion of Passive-Voice Constructions
by Deaf Children

In a study by Schmitt (1968) using 48 deaf subjects from ages 8 to 17, it was found that many deaf adolescents as late as age 17, had problems comprehending reversible passive voice constructions. He concluded that they probably ignored the passive voice markers—the verb to be and the by-phrase—and interpreted the sentences as active voice constructions. In other words, after reading a sentence like "The girl was pushed by the boy", a deaf adolescent might often think that the girl pushed the boy—the absolute opposite interpretation of the one intended.

Power and Quigley ( 1973) studied 100 prelingually profoundly deaf children between ages 9 and 18. Their research supported the findings of Schmitt: They believed that the deaf children were processing the subject-verb-by-phrase of a passive sentence as if it were the subject-verb-object of an active voice sentence. And they named this kind of processing subject-verb-object (SVO) reading strategy.

They further noticed a hierarchy of difficulty, as follows:

  1. The most difficult were the agentless passive constructions where the by-phrase was missing and only the verb to be with the past participle appeared as an indicator of the passive voice as in "The girl was pushed".
  2. Of only slightly less difficulty were reversible passive constructions like "The girl was pushed by the boy" which deaf subjects often interpreted as "The girl pushed the boy."
  3. Of less difficulty were the nonreversible passive constructions such as "The car was washed by the man," where a subject-verb-object (SVO) reading strategy would have produced a nonsensical meaning.

Both the study by Schmitt and the study by Power and Quigley had presented their subjects with passive voice constructions in isolated sentences.

However, a third study by McGill-Franzen and Gormley (1980) presented 36 deaf grammar school children with passive voice constructions in two environments: (1) in isolation and (2) in context-rich connected prose. Their subjects demonstrated significant improvement in the comprehension of the passive voice-sentences in the context-rich connected prose.

Production of Passive-Voice Constructions
by Deaf Children

In the production part of Power's and Quigley's (1973) study, the only passive marker that subjects used consistently and correctly was the preposition by. Otherwise, subjects made frequent errors in the verb phrase, writing sentences such as the following:

Even at 17 and 18 years of age, only 40% of the deaf subjects were able to produce correct passive voice sentences.

Summary of Comprehension and Production Studies

  1. The most difficult to least difficult types of passive voice construction for young deaf students to produce were as follows:
  2. The more difficult to less difficult types of environment for young deaf students to comprehend were:
  3. In their production of passive voice sentences, deaf students tended to include by-phrases but made errors while writing the correct forms of the verb to be and the past participles.

Guided Practice

Identifying Passive-Voice Constructions

Below is a brief exercise in identifying passive voice constructions. Read each sentence below. Determine whether the high-lighted verb phrase contains a passive-voice construction. Then check the answers below the paragraph.

  1. Before the Industrial Revolution, all textiles—clothing, carpets, tents, blankets, curtains, tablecloths, and upholstery—were manufactured by hand.
  2. Then, in 1767, The first spinning jenny was built by James Hargreaves.
  3. After that, cotton yarn could be manufactured in great quantities.
  4. In 1769, Richard Arkwright invented the Spinning Frame, which spun yarn of a sturdier quality than the spinning Jenny.
  5. In 1779, Samual Crompton created the spinning mule, which created a more elegant cotton thread than the spinning Jenny could.
  6. Within a few years, a variety of other types of textile machines were invented by other gifted entrepreneurs.
  7. In 1793, Eli Whitney built a machine that would clean the seeds out of green cotton.
  8. Now, massive amounts of cotton could be processed in a short time.
  9. This period of rapid mechanical invention was called the Industrial Revolution.

Answers:

  1. were manufactured [yes]
  2. was built [yes]
  3. be manufactured [yes]
  4. invented [no]
  5. created [no]
  6. were invented [yes]
  7. built [no]
  8. be processed [yes]
  9. was called [yes]

Identifying Stative-Passive Constructions

In the exercises below, distinguish between true passive voice constructions and stative passive constructions. Then, check your answer with the answers below. Remember that a true passive construction indicates that an action is performed on the subject of the sentence; whereas a stative passive construction merely describes the state or condition of the subject.

  1. In, 1883, the first electric data-processing machine was built by a man named Herman Hollerith
  2. It came to be called the Hollerith Electric tabulating Machine.
  3. Hollerith was excited because his machine worked so well.
  4. Later, to Hollerith's great satisfaction, his machine was used to conduct the United States census of 1890.
  5. After seeing the success of Hollerith's Electric Tabulating machine, other countries were interested in leasing it to perform their censuses, as well.

Answers:

  1. was built [true passive]
  2. to be called [true passive]
  3. was excited [stative passive]
  4. was used [true passive]
  5. were interested [stative passive]

Simplifying Passive Voice Constructions

If your students have trouble understanding passive voice constructions, you can write some short pieces of written information and instructions in the active voice. For practice in modifying sentences, pretend that your students have had trouble reading the sentences below; and you have decided to rewrite them in the active voice. Write your answers on a sheet of paper. Then, check your answers with the suggested answers below.

  1. Gold was discovered in California in 1849.
  2. The Pony Express mail service was established in 1860 by three wealthy tycoons.
  3. In June of 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded.
  4. A deputy sheriff was wounded by two robbers last night during a shoot-out at a convenience store.
  5. On the evening of 8 October 1999, April Fowler was knocked out by Layla Ali 31 seconds into the the third round of their exhibition fight at the Turning Stone Casino.

Suggested answers:

  1. Some prospectors (gold miners, people, they, somebody) found gold in California in 1849.
  2. Three wealthy tycoons established the Pony Express mail service in 1860.
  3. In June of 1941, Germany (Armies of the German Third Reich) invaded the Soviet Union.
  4. Last night during a shoot-out at a convenience store, two robbers wounded a deputy sheriff.
  5. On the evening of 8 October 1999, Layla Ali knocked out April Fowler 31 seconds into their exhibition fight at the Turning Stone Casino.

Which of the original sentences, do you think, would me the most difficult for your deaf students?

Action Steps

When your purpose is to convey written information as clearly as possible to your deaf students, write instructions, quizzes, tests, and other necessary information in the active voice. In that way, you have a good chance of facilitating your students' comprehension of the material. It is well worth the effort, but you must keep in mind the following caveat.

Never eliminate passive voice constructions from another writer's prose in order to make it easier for your students to read. Passive voice is a tool that writers use unconsciously to keep their readers' focus on the topic of a passage and to maintain a smooth balance between old and new information. The changing of another writer's passive voice sentences to active voice sentences without regard for the order of information, can significantly disrupt the flow of information and can actually weaken readers' ability to remember what they have read. Moreover, in the process of simplifying another writer's passive voice sentences, other rhetorical devices can inadvertently get eliminated as well, degrading the text even more, and in imperceptible ways. The result is a passage that is actually more difficult to read than the original.

Given this caveat, if your students have to read extended texts with passive voice sentences, use some of the following instructive ways of intervening:

Specific Activities

  1. Writing teachers can encourage students to keep the topic of an essay in the subject position as much as possible (Robinson, 2000). Then, if students make structural errors with the verbs, teachers can discuss with them which subjects should have passive verbs. This will provide students with authentic practice in both context and structure of passive voice sentences.
  2. Social Studies teachers can increase students' exposure to passive voice structures by incorporating them in exercises in ways that they might naturally appear and where their meaning is absolutely clear such as in a guided sentence exercise in which students must first find correct information needed to complete a passive voice sentence and then rewrite the completed sentence on paper. Here is an example:
  3. Directions: Complete the following sentences by writing the name of the correct inventor in each of the spaces below. Then rewrite the complete sentences neatly in your notebook.

    If the students find the correct information; then, the sentences in their notebooks should look like these:

    With this kind of exercise, students have the opportunity learn the information while producing copious amounts of correct passive voice sentences.

  4. Reading teachers can occasionally develop inductive exercises related to students' reading assignments that force students to choose between active and passive sentences; for example, an exercise related to The Emerald Forest by Robert Holdstock might contain contrasts like these:
  5. Directions: Choose a statement from each pair that describes correctly what happened in Story of The Emerald Forest. Only one statement from each pair is correct.

    1. Mr. Markham drove to work every day in a Jeep Rover.
    2. Mr. Markham was driven to work every day in a Jeep Rover.

    1. The police called after Tommy had disappeared from the construction site.
    2. The police were called after Tommy had disappeared from the construction site.

    1. Father Leduc taught Portuguese at the Grey's Landing Mission.
    2. Father Leduc was taught Portuguese at the Grey's Landing Mission.

    1. As soon as Tomé and Wanadi had left the village, the Invisible People attacked.
    2. As soon as Tomé and Wanadi had left the village, the Invisible People were attacked.

  6. Ronald W. White (1978) in his article Teaching the Passive writes that the passive voice is often "treated as a transformation exercise, the student being required to rewrite active statements as passive ones. The result can be a confusion of forms, with a combination of elements which are neither active nor passive." He further reminds us that a major function of the passive, "as a means of describing a sequentially ordered process, may not be obvious to the student as a result of such practice exercises." White suggests exposing students to descriptions of industrial and agricultural production processes from beginning to end. For in such instances, writers naturally tend to use passive voice to keep the product in the subject position of a sentence while adding the new information in the remaining part of the sentence; for example,

White suggests several accompanying activities such as multiple readings, answering questions, and the creation of flow-charts in order to help students to focus on form, content, and flow of information. If you are a teacher of reading or writing, White's article is well worth reading.

Conclusion

As a teacher, the most powerful action step that you can perform is that of recognizing passive voice constructions and knowing that students may misunderstand them. In this way, you have the option of deciding whether or not to intervene and how to intervene when it is necessary.

References

Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1983). The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.

Holdstock, R., (1985). John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. New York: Zoetrope.

McGill-Franzen, A., & Gormley, K. A. (1980). The influence of context on deaf readers' understanding of passive sentences. American Annals of the Deaf, 125, 937-942.

Power, D. J., & Quigley, S. P. (1973). Deaf children's acquisition of the passive voice. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 16, 5-11.

Robinson, W. S. (2000). Sentence focus, cohesion, and the active and passive voices. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 27(4), 440-445.

Shintani, M. (1979). The frequency and usage of the English passive. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

White, R. V. (1978). Teaching the passive. English Language Teaching Journal, 32(3), 188-194

Yim, B. (1998). A contextual analysis of the "get"-passive in spoken American English. Unpublished master's thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.