What is Voice in English? Definition, Types and Examples

What is Voice in English? Definition, Types and Examples

You may be wondering if we are in a music or phonology class where we can see voice as the sound made by the vibration of vocal folds modified by the resonance of the vocal tract. No, we are not! We are actually in English Grammar class. Voice is one of the systems in English that operates at the clausal level. As much as we study tense and aspect in English grammar, we also need to study the concept of voice. So this post, What is Voice in English? Definition, Types and Examples, becomes relevant.

What is Voice in English? Definition, Types and Examples

From a layman’s standpoint, voice is a form of the verb which shows whether the subject of a sentence performs an action or the subject has an action performed on it.

What is Voice?

More precisely, voice is a term we use to describe the system which makes it possible to choose a form of verbal group marked as passive. It relates to the form of the verb that shows whether the subject of a sentence does an action or has an action done to it. Voice is the technical term which allows us to make such choices.

 Types of Voices in English

There are two (2) types of voices in English. They are:

  1. The active voice and
  2. The passive voice

Let us examine each one of these closely…

The Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject of the verb is the one who does the action which the verb describes, and the object is the one the subject acts on.

Examples of the Active Voice

The following sentences demonstrate active voice:

  • The students seized the bus.
  • John killed the stubborn goat.
  • The postmaster brought Mary’s letter.
  • We submitted the assignments yesterday.
  • Do you have the material he brought?

The Passive Voice

The passive voice has to do with a verbal group that contains forms of the be-verbs plus the past participle form of the verb in passive in voice. In other words, we mark the verbal group for the passive words.

Examples of the Passive Voice

To make this type clear and distinguishable from the active voice, let us use similar sentences used above, but in the passive forms. See the following:

  • The bus was seized by the students
  • The stubborn goat was killed by John.
  • Mary’s letter was brought by the postmaster.
  • The assignments were submitted by us yesterday.
  • Do you have the material which was brought by him?

We can see the relationship between the active and passive words from the following.

S                         P          C
The students /seized/the bus – active

S                     P                   A
The bus/ was seized/ by the students – passive

Note: ‘S’ represents ‘Subject’, ‘P’ stands for ‘Predicator, ‘C’ represents ‘Complement’ and ‘A’ stands for ‘Adjunct’.

Actor or Performer?

Note that in sentences under the passive voice, the nominal group in the subject position are not actors or performers of the actions in the verbal group operating in the predicator position. These nominal groups are the receivers of the action in the verbal group.

The real actors have now been embedded within the adverbial group operating in the adjunct which follows immediately after the predicator. At times, the real actor is deleted. For example:

  • The bus was seized.
  • The stubborn goat was killed.
  • Mary’s letter was brought.
  • The assignments were submitted yesterday.
  • Do you have the material which was brought?

Uses of the Passive Voice

The passive voice has its own added value to different forms of writing. We use the passive voice in the following instances:

  1. In scientific and technical writings.
  2. Government circulars and official communication; the value of the passive voice is that it allows anonymity.
  3. When there is a need for impersonal construction.
  4. If we do not know the identity of the doer of the action.
  5. When the writer wishes to hide the identity of the doer of the action, e. g. The vase was broken.
  6. If the writer needs to put distinct emphasis on the object or the action rather than on the doer of the action thereby giving it end focus. E. g. The bomb was defused by experts.
  7. We use the passive voice more frequently in formal writings than in informal writing.

 Grammatical Incongruity

Whenever you write, always avoid the temptation of using active and passive voices together in one sentences as demonstrated below:

  • The displaced persons need more relief materials and it will be sourced from public-spirited individuals.
  • The displaced persons need more relief materials and will source them from public-spirited individuals.

Double Passive

We do not often come across this unwieldy construction which we know as the double passive; where a writer introduces two passive constructions close together in the same sentence. It is an error we have to avoid. For example:

  • No cure was sought to be obtained by the sick man.

To remove the double passive, we can properly rewrite the example above thus:

  • The sick man did not seek to obtain any cure; or
  • The sick man did not seek any cure.

 Voice and Transitive Verb vs Intransitive Verb

Let me inform you that the transitive verb (which requires an object) can take two voices while the intransitive verb (which does not require an object) can only accommodate the active voice. Look at the following examples:

Transitive Verb

  • The man smashed the glass. (Active)
  • The glass was smashed by the man. (Passive)

Intransitive Verb

  • My leg aches. (Active)
  • Her body itches. (Active)
  • They work smart. (Active)

We cannot render any of the examples above in the passive form. Do you mind giving it a try? You will come up with ludicrous sentences.

  • *aches my leg. (Ungrammatical)
  • *itches her body. (Ungrammatical)
  • *work they smart. (Ungrammatical)

Things to Note

When we change a structure from the active form to the passive form, we notice the following:

1. The tense of the structure remains but the aspect of the verb changes. See the following illustrations:

Active

  • I write a book. (Present tense)
  • I wrote a book. (Past tense)
  • I am writing a book. (Present tense, Progressive aspect)

 Passive

  • A book is written by me. (Present tense, Perfective aspect)
  • A book was written by me. (Past tense, Perfective aspect)
  • A book is being written by me. (Present tense, progressive, Perfective aspects)

2. The substitution of the Subject and the Object and the introduction of the by-headed prepositional phrase. E. g.

  • The kids rode the bicycle. (Active)
  • The bicycle was ridden by the kids. (Passive)

3. Retained Complement – there is a possibility of the retention of one of the complements for a verb that accommodates two objects in passive structures. Let us show this with the following examples:

 Active

  • The class elected George the captain.
  • The governor bought the party members a bus.

Passive

  • George was elected the captain by the class.
  • A bus was bought for the party members by the governor.

Closing Words

When we use too much of the passive structure, it makes our text looks verbose or ostentatious. However, the active voice makes our texts more straight and desirable. Compare the first sentence below with the last two. I am sure you will prefer the second or the third one:

  • Kitchen utensils may be found in the cabinet.
  • You can find Kitchen utensils in the cabinet, or
  • Kitchen utensils are in the cabinet.

I hope you have learned something useful in this post on Voice in English Grammar. Keep reading our posts for more linguistic illumination. Thank you!

19 Comments

  1. thank u sir, but in a CBT test were answers are programmed if Else….Else(its either this or nothing else) when should we omit the actor?

    1. Thanks Kenny, we do not necessarily need to omit the actor. Passive structures have the actors or performers of the actions in sentences taking the place of the receivers of the actions; that is, they take the place of the objects with the introduction of the ‘by’ adverbial phrase.

  2. Passive is like saying something indirectly while active is direct……. Now I know the differences between the two voices. Thank you so much sir.

  3. I have learnt a lot through this post and it has given me a better understanding on what voice is all about, I believe with have have read I should be able to tackle all questions on voice in English, thank u sir.

  4. I have learn more and understand what passive and active voice in English is, now I can answer any question on this.

  5. With the help of this write up, I understand the meaning of active voice and passive voice and also how to differentiate an active sentence from a passive sentence. Thank you sir

  6. This is really great. With this, have been enlightened more on how active and passive voice works in construction of sentences.

  7. I deduce from the above note that the active voice describe a sentence where subject perform the a tion stated by verb and in passive voice the subject receives action that is expressed by verb.

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