English sentences can begin with the subject or object. This is determined by the voice a sentence takes. Voice is the form a verb takes to indicate whether a person or thing does something or something has been done to a person or a thing.
In essence, voice is the form of a verb that shows whether or not the subject is performing the action. Of course, only action verbs can indicate voice; linking verbs cannot. In English, there are two voices: active and passive (Forlini, 2000). When the subject of a verb performs the action, the verb is active; when the subject receives the action, the verb is passive (Brown, Nilson, Shaw and Weldon 2004).
Any action verb, regardless of whether it is transitive (with direct object) or intransitive (without a direct object) can be in the active voice. Of course, transitive or intransitive verb is active when its subject performs the action. For example, “The puppeteer (subject) manipulated the strings (Direct object)”. In the given sentence, the verb is transitive and therefore has a direct object, which receives the action of the verb. Let’s look at another example, “Leaves (subject) gathered (verb) in the corner of the garden”. In the second example, the verb is intransitive; it has no direct object.
Most action verbs can be passive as well as active. For the purpose of emphasis, a verb is passive when its action is performed upon the subject. A passive verb almost never has a direct object and is always a verb phrase made from a form of be plus the past participle of a transitive verb.
If the sentence structure is recast thus: “The strings (subject) were manipulated (verb) by the puppeteer (object of preposition)”. The subject of the sentence ‘strings’ is the receiver of the action – instead of being responsible for the action, it is affected by the action. Here, the word puppeteer is now the object of the preposition ‘by’ instead of the subject.
Looking at the second example of passive voice “The leaves (subject) were gathered (verb) into large plastic bags”. In the second example of passive voice in this context, no performer of the action is mentioned. Notice that neither example of passive verbs has a direct object.
The tense of the helping verb ‘be’ determines the tense of a passive verb. If, for example, the form of ‘be’ is in the present tense, the passive verb is in the present tense, and so on. The past participle does not change.
The active voice is generally more emphatic than the passive voice. In this connection, let’s examine the sentence that reads thus: “The prediction that oil prices will rise is being made by economists (passive)”. The same sentence can be changed to active voice thus: “Economists now predict that oil prices will rise”. Notice that the passive voice focuses the readers’ attention on the action or its receiver rather than on who is performing it. The receiver of the action is the subject of a passive sentence, so the actors fades into the background (by economists) or is omitted entirely (the prediction is now being made). The active voice, however, places the emphasis where it belongs: on the actor or actors (Economists).
Passive voice is also used when the identity of the person performing the action is irrelevant or unknown. For this reason, the passive voice is frequently used in scientific and technical writing e.g. The beaker was filled with a saline solution (Kirkzner and Mandell 2004).
Sometimes, writers use the passive voice to suppress responsibility for actions. Unless you have a sufficient reasons for choosing the passive form, use the active voice to keep your sentences vigorous and your intentions straightforward (Wearer & Weaver 2000).
There are basic rules of changing active into passive. The first rule stipulates that the object of the verb in the active voice becomes the subject of the verb in the passive slot e.g. David killed a lion (active), the passive form will read: A lion was killed by David (passive).
The second rule provides that the subject of the verb in the active voice becomes the object in the passive voice, obligatorily preceded by the preposition by. For example, David is cutting a tree (active). The sentence through passive transformation will become: A tree is being cut by David (passive).
The third rule demands that the main verb is changed into past participle form and it is preceded by the right form of the verb ‘be’ in the passive voice. Examples are seen in: Sandra wrote a letter (active). Through transformation the sentence will change to passive voice thus: A letter was written by Sandra (passive).
The fourth rule states that the verbs that have double objects always go with either of the objects (preferably the personal objects). The preferable object occupies the subject position and the other object is retained as an object. As Das (2010) puts it, this is called Retained object. Examples of sentences of this nature include: our teacher gave us (indirect object) textbooks (direct object). Two passive voices can be crafted from the sentence thus: We were given textbooks by our teachers – (passive I) or Textbooks were given to us (passive II).
The fifth rule states that the preposition ‘by’ is always placed to govern the recipient of the action in the passive slot (Eyisi and Okolo 2015).
It is not every verb in English that allows the passive formation. Only two types of verbs can allow the passives and these are transitive and ditransitive verbs (Wiredu 1999). These are verbs which can take objects. For transitive verbs, some examples are: bite, carry, find, obtain, watch etc.
As transitive verbs, these verbs can occur in both active and passive sentence forms. It is possible, therefore, to say: “Pascal watched the match”. The sentence can change to passive form thus: “The match was watched by Pascal”. For ditransitive verbs, we have some examples like: deny, grant, lend, offer, spare etc. With these verbs, also, it is possible to have both active and passive sentences: “The Police denied Jack his bail”. The sentence can be changed to passive form thus: “Jack was denied his bail by the Police”.
Intransitive verbs however do not allow passive formation. These are verbs which do not take objects at all. Therefore, they cannot have any Noun Phrase (NP) that can serve as the grammatical subject in a passive sentence. Some intransitive verbs are arrive, come, go, laugh, sleep etc.
We can construct active sentences using these verbs but it is not possible to change the active sentences crafted using the verb to passive sentences e.g. my parents have arrived from London or They will come home soon. My point of emphasis is that we cannot change these active sentences into passives.
In understanding the process of passivizations, readers and writers need to note that linking verbs do not allow passive formation. The reason is that such verbs do not take objects. As a result, they do not have any Noun Phrase (NP) which can become the grammatical subject in a passive sentence. Examples of such verbs are: be, become, look, remain, sound etc. It is possible to have active sentence such as: “Her father has become our new Manager or Laycon remains committed to our cause”. But it is not possible to change these sentences into passive sentences.
Another constraint to passivization is that middle verbs do not allow passive formation. Examples of such verbs are: fit, lack, own, possess, resemble etc. These can be used only in the active and not in the passive. Thus, it is allowed to say: “This shirt fits the child” or “Fred owns that building”. However, it is not possible to say: “The child is fitted by this shirt” or “The building is owned by Fred”.
Of equal importance is the principle that reflexive pronouns which occur as object in an active sentence blocks passive formation. That is, where the object in the active sentence is a reflexive pronoun, that sentence cannot be turned into passive. With this principle, it is possible to say: “Christianah saw herself in the mirror”. Or “Donald washes himself in the river”. In the sentences, the reflexives ‘herself’ and ‘himself’ are the respective objects in each sentence. However, we cannot say: “Herself was seen by Christianah in the mirror” or “Himself is washed by Donald in the river”.
Last but not the least is the constraint one faces in using reciprocal pronouns for passive formation. Reciprocal pronouns such as each other and one another do not allow passive formation. We can have active sentence like: “We greeted each other in the market”. Or sentence such as “Those boys see one another daily”. But, we cannot have passive versions of these sentences thus: “Each other was greeted by us in the market” or “one another is seen daily by these boys”.
In conclusion, the essence of this piece is to emphasize the need for writers and users of English language to understand the basic principles guiding the conversion of active to passive voice and to identify the constraints to passive formations.
So far you can distinguish between active and passive, it becomes easier for you to apply this knowledge to improve your own writing. However, most accomplished writers prefer the active voice to the passive voice. Usually a verb can convey the same information in either active or the passive voice. The active voice is more direct and economical. Unless you have a definite reason for choosing the passive voice, use the active voice instead. The passive voice does, however, have two important uses. Writers often use passive voice to emphasize the receiver than the performer of an action or to point out the receiver when the performer is unknown or unimportant and not named in the sentence.
Brown A.C, J. Nilson, F.W. Shaw and R.A. Weldon (2004) Grammar and Composition: Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company pp 119-120
Das P.C (2010) Applied English Grammar and Composition: India, New Central Book Agency Ltd.
Eyisi J. and C. Okolo (2015) Modern English Grammar and Usage: Enugu, Abic Books Ltd pp 195-199
Forlini G. (2000) Grammar and Composition: New York, Prentice Hall Publishers pp 185-188
Kirszner L.G and S.R Mandell (2004) The Concise Wadsworth Handbook; United Kingdom, Thomson Wadsworth pp 172-173
Weaver P.C and R.G Weaver (2000) Persuasive Writing: London, Collier Macmillan Publishers pp 165-166
Wiredu J.F. (1999) Organised English Structure: Accra, Academic Publication (Ghana) Limited pp 139-146