A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice

A couple months ago, I did a post on the grammatical categories of verb tense and aspect. Now I’d like to continue on with this series and take a look at another category: passive and active voice. Many writers understand very well what the passive voice is, but as I mentioned in my previous grammar post, it can be confused with the progressive and perfect aspects. Seeing as I can’t do anything halfway, this is a post for those who’d like to acquire a deeper understanding of how  passive and active sentences are actually formed. In doing so, this may help you understand how you’re using your sentences in your own writing.

So what are passive and active voice?

In short, a passive sentence is a sentence whose subject is not the one doing the action in a normal transitive sentence. What is that, you ask? A transitive sentence is a sentence that has a subject and an object, which affects or is affected by the verb. An intransitive sentence doesn’t have an object.

So, let’s say we have the following parts of speech: a subject (S), a verb (V), an object (O), and a prepositional phrase (PP). The following sentences should be parsed grammatically this way:

Transitive sentence: I read the book.

(1)           I         read       the book.

S           V           O

Intransitive sentence: I grew up in Alabama.

(2)           I           grew up      in Alabama.

S             V                 PP

In sentence (1), the object is defined by its relationship to the verb. It is clear that the subject “I” is the one who is doing the reading. In sentence (2), there is no object because the act of growing up is reflected upon the subject. The prepositional phrase is additional information and does not affect the act of growing up itself. However, the subject “I” is still the one doing the action.

I’ll note that due to a lack of an object, intransitive sentences can’t be passive, but there are verbs that can be both transitive and intransitive depending on the context.

(3)           Transitive:  He stood the ladder in the doorway.
(4)           Intransitive:  He stood in the doorway.

In sentence (3), there is a clear subject (he) who does the action (stood) to a clearly defined object (the ladder). In sentence (4), the verb is reflexive. The subject (he) is more or less performing the action (stood) to itself. An object is unnecessary, but the sentence is still active since the subject (he) is still the grammatical subject of the sentence.

But what does this have to do with passive/active voice?

When a sentence is active, the subject is the agent of the action (meaning the one who is doing the action) — an action which is then expressed by a transitive verb (meaning the verb which will have an object following it). The object that follows the verb is affected by the verb and by the subject who initiates the action.

In a passive sentence, however, the affected object becomes the subject of the sentence, and the agent itself is either expressed with a prepositional phrase or left ambiguously unmarked. The verb form itself consists of the auxiliary verb be plus the past participle (-ed participle).

(5)           The horse (OBJ)        is  (auxiliary)           ridden  (past participle)            every day (ADV).

Using the above information, consider the following structure of the next two example sentences:

If the subject of the sentence is the agent, the sentence is active.

(6)           The teacher       read       the book.

S                V             O

AGENT                         OBJECT

If the subject of the sentence is the object and the agent comes after the verb, the sentence is passive.

(7)           The book     was read     by the teacher.

S                        V               PP

OBJECT                           AGENT

In sentence (7), the book is the subject of the sentence, but the book itself is not the agent of the action, meaning the book is not the one doing the reading. Here we know who is reading the book, or in other words, we know who/what the agent is (the teacher). However, the agent is expressed as a prepositional phrase, is placed after the verb, and is not the grammatical subject of the sentence, thus making the sentence passive.

In Conclusion

As writers, we don’t need to have the linguistic know-how to form active or passive sentences, but it does help to have some idea as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. I’ve read various tricks and tips for testing a sentence to see if it’s passive. One that was mentioned in my critique group was to add ‘by zombies’ (courtesy of Amanda, I believe) after the verb — if it fits, then it’s probably passive. The couch was eaten by zombies. (Unless it’s a sentence like “He was standing by zombies.” Remember: that’s intransitive. NOT PASSIVE! )

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If you found this post to be helpful, consider checking out the others in this series:

A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

Writing Fluid Fiction: How to Use Italics

Writing Fluid Fiction: Rolling Eyes, Turning Heads, and Other Autonomous Body Parts

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If you have any questions, comments, or think something I’ve written needs correcting, by all means, let me know in the comments below! Does passive voice give you trouble?

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A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

timelineToday I’m going to put on my bossy grammar hat and talk about a misconception that was brought to my attention the other day during a chat with my critique group. One member asked if the verb “to stand” was passive in the sentence: “He was standing in the doorway.” Another member said yes, it is passive. And I said no, it is not.

Why isn’t it passive? It has the conjugated form of the verb ‘to be’ followed by the present participle ‘standing’ – aren’t those instances of passive voice? In short, no. Not every verb paired with some version of ‘is’,  ‘was’, ‘has been’ or ‘had been’ is passive.

What they confused for passive voice is actually the past progressive form of the verb. But to understand what exactly that means, I’ll have to start from the beginning.

Grammatical Categories

Verbs in English have several grammatical categories: person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), number (singular, plural), voice (active, passive), and then, tense, aspect, and mood. What does this mean? That depending on what you’re trying to say, you use these categories to convey your intended meaning. Who is doing the action? How many people/things are doing the action? When is/was the action done? In the past? Now? How long does the subject do the action? Is the action completed? Is the action given as a command, a hypothesis, or a fact? Without knowing it, every time you write a sentence, you convey all of this information to your reader.

Today I want to go over tense and aspect, as they seem to cause some confusion. I know this is technical, but I’ll try to break it down as best as I can.

Tense

The first grammatical verb category is tense, which references time: the past, the present, or the future. English only has two morphological tenses: present and past. The future tense is formed with the aid of modal verbs such as auxiliaries (will, shall) or from context (with adverbs), but English itself has no morphological future tense (unlike French). When I say “morphological tenses,” I mean that we do not conjugate the verbs into a specific form to indicate the future.

  1. Present tense: He stands in the doorway.
  2. Past tense: He stood in the doorway.
  3. Future tense expressed with auxiliary: He will stand in the doorway.

Aspect

The second category, aspect, expresses the frequency, duration, or the completion of an action and works, more or less, as a modifier of tense. The progressive aspect is used for an action that is ongoing, while the perfect aspect is used  for an action that has been completed.

When dealing with aspect, it’s easier (for me) to think of events occurring on a timeline. Does the action start and stop at a specific point on that line? Is it still ongoing? Has it been recently completed but still have some influence over the future? If you have two verbs, how do their actions interact with one another on that timeline? Does one action occur and end before the other starts? If so, this will have to be conveyed in your writing as a means of orientation for your reader.

The four aspects of the present tense:

  1. The present (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stands in the doorway.”
  2. The present (tense) progressive (aspect): “He is standing in the doorway.”
  3. The present (tense) perfect (aspect): “He has already stood in the doorway for two hours.”
  4. The present (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He has been standing in the doorway for two hours.”

In sentence (1), there is no progressive or perfect aspect. The verb states a fact — that the action is occurring. According to Katie Wales (2001), the present progressive is used much more often than the simple present when describing actions done at the present time. This may be a stylistic choice, but I won’t get into that now. In sentence (2) the progressive aspect shows that the action is still ongoing and has not yet been completed by the subject. In sentence (3), the perfect aspect illustrates that the action has already been completed before a certain point in time but may still have some effect on the future. Sentence (4) combines both the perfect and the progressive aspects (called the present perfect progressive) to specify that the action has been completed up until a certain point but is still ongoing at the present moment.

The four aspects of the past tense:

  1. The past (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stood in the doorway.”
  2. The past (tense) progressive (aspect): “He was standing in the doorway when I entered the room.”
  3. The past (tense) perfect (aspect): “He had stood in the doorway for two hours to await Mary’s arrival.”
  4. The past (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He had been standing in the doorway for two hours by the time Mary arrived.”

Just as with the present progressive and perfect, the past progressive and perfect also deal with duration, frequency, and whether or not the action has been completed. In this case, however, we have simply shifted backwards in time (changed tenses). Sentence (1), gives no temporal information. In sentence (2), the “I” subject does not know how long “he” has been standing in the doorway, but the action of standing is still ongoing even when “I” enters the room, so the action is not completed.

Issues with the past perfect (Sentence 3) come up a lot when I’m editing. The example sentence needs a bit more context to show its relationship to the current temporal setting, but I used it to show the structure. The past perfect is an indication of something that has happened (and been completed) at some point in time before the current moment of the narrative (usually the simple past) but which may still be relevant to the future (to that point beyond the current moment in the narrative).

Sentence (4) is an action completed up until a certain point in the past but which is still ongoing at the moment (in relation to the simple past). The subject “he” has completed some of the action of standing in the doorway (in other words, he has already been there for a while before the point on the timeline when Mary arrives), but the action itself is still ongoing in relation to the current moment of the narrative (the point when Mary arrives).

The perfect and simple past tenses have a complicated relationship, but Wales (2001) argues (and I agree) that in narratives where the past tense is (arguably) more widely used, the “significance of the (past) perfect is apparent.” Therefore, as a writer, there will be moments when you must clarify whether the actions have occurred or are still occurring. In these cases, it is imperative to use aspect to orientate your reader. (The same goes for present tense progressive and perfect aspects if your story is in the present tense.)

Final thoughts . . .

Don’t mistake the progressive or perfect aspects for passive voice. The English progressive and perfect forms are completely natural (and necessary) for expressing actions in relation to time — whether they’ve been completed, whether they’re ongoing, whether they are only partially completed.

In order to make the original sentence in question passive (He was standing in the doorway), it would need to be worded (that was passive) like this: “He was being stood in the doorway.” Now it has the past tense, progressive aspect, and passive voice. The subject is no longer the one doing the action; the action is done instead by an external unnamed agent.

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If this post was helpful, check out my post on passive and active voice:

A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice

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Questions? Comments? Concerns? Do you have issues with aspect or tense? Was this confusing? Does it help at all? Let me know below!

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Sources:
Wales, Katie. A Dictionary of Stylistics. Pearson Education Limited, 2001. (pg. 31, 389)
Delatour, Y.; etc. Nouvelle Grammaire du Français. Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. Hachette Livre, 2004.
My brain (for what it is worth).

The Poor (Abused) Apostrophe S

Don't confuse possessive for plural.

Stop the abuse of the apostrophe S.

I’m taking a bit of a risk today, letting y’all see behind my mild-mannered mask of normalcy…

 Language changes.  It evolves.  That’s a good thing.  Language use in speech is much less formal than the written  word and God knows texting has made things less formal.  However, unless I missed a major memo, we did not agree as English-speaking peoples of earth, to combine possessive and plural word endings or use them interchangeably!

It’s huge.  I’ve seen it all over the internet, on billboards, in print ads.  It is my singular pet peeve and inordinately irritating.  Truly, I sometimes see red.  Seriously, did I miss this memo?  It seems I’m the only one so offended.

On the off chance I’m not alone, here’s a series of sentences.  In each group, one sentence is glaringly wrong.

The Carson’s are coming to dinner.
The Carsons are coming to dinner
The Carsons’ daughter is coming to dinner.

I need to get my girl’s from school.
I need to get my girls from school.
I need to get my girl’s homework from school.

I’ve never liked banana’s.
I’ve never liked bananas
I’ve never liked a banana’s taste.

Vegetable’s are good for you.
Vegetables are good for you.
A vegetable’s vitamins are good for you.

I have the best customer’s.
I have the best customers.
I have the best customers’ reviews.

Husband’s are nice to have.
Husbands are nice to have.
A husband’s presence is nice to have.

So tell me.  Am I truly alone in this?  Am I the only one bothered by the misuse of the apostrophe?

Oxford Comma, how I love thee!

It is the little speck of punctuation that is the fine line between brilliance and pure embarrassment:  The Oxford Comma.  Named after the Oxford University Press style guideline where the comma is a mandated requirement to be used before a conjunction at the end of the list.  Because the style guide mandates, the students of Oxford University must abide.

But why stop there?  Why only mandate the comma’s use just to Oxford University.   I would like to make a movement for the Oxford Comma to be incorporated as an obligatory writing rule!  Stop the Presses!  MLA, APA, Chicago – start mandating the Oxford Comma so that we, lovers of the written word, can stop being subjected to atrocities such as these:

With the Oxford Comma:  We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

Without the Oxford Comma:  We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

With the Oxford Comma:  We invited the rhinoceri, Washington, and Lincoln.

Without the Oxford Comma:  We invited the rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln.

With the Oxford Comma:  I like going on vacations, hanging with friends, drinking good beer, and driving fast.

Without the Oxford Comma:  I like going on vacations, hanging with friends, drinking good beer and driving fast.

With the Oxford Comma:  I would like to thank my parents, Sting, and Oprah Winfrey.

Without the Oxford Comma:  I would like to thank my parents, Sting and Oprah Winfrey.

Writers who utilize this comma are seen as gold in my eyes.  Many authors’ books sit pristine upon my bookshelves, their pages unmarred by red ink because I don’t have to edit in an Oxford Comma.  So, writers, be kind to your readers and use the Oxford comma. It will save your readers from wondering if your parents actually are Sting and Oprah Winfrey.

P.S.  To all the comma haters out there, I would like to note that proper grammar and comma usage saves lives.  There is an intense difference between:

Let’s eat Grandpa.”  and   “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”