Demystifying voice in English

Voice is a grammatical concept that indicates whether the subject of a sentence is performing or receiving the action of the verb. The Oxford Dictionary of English aptly defines voice as a form or set of forms of a verb showing the relation of the subject to the action. This implies that a verb does not only undergo changes to reflect tense, but also shows the relationship that writers or speakers want to make out of actors and actions. By extension, we have two types of voice: the active voice and the passive voice. While the active voice indicates that the subject of a sentence is performing the action, the passive voice depicts that the subject is experiencing the result of the action. In the active voice, therefore, the subject precedes the action and the object. For the passive voice, the object occupies the position of the subject and vice-versa, as instanced hereunder:

She (subject) ate rice (object) last night (active voice).

Rice (object) was eaten by her (subject) last night (passive voice).

Rendering utterances as the passive voice is not a mere structural choice, but one which has implications for writers’ or speakers’ intentions. First, the passive construction is deployed to redirect emphasis in information structure. While the conventional sentence structure in English is S (subject) V (verb) O (object) which gives a sentence like,‘Kunle killed the goat’, the need to emphasise that a goat was killed and to de-emphasise the killer will result in the passive construction: ‘The goat was killed by Kunle’. Also, the passive construction is often used to hide the performer of an action. In organisations, memoranda are usually issued in passive forms, as seen in the example below:

All members of the faculty are directed to submit their updated curriculum vitae tomorrow (passive voice).

In this sentence, the writer has deliberately left out the authority that issued the directive. This, of course, has many administrative implications.

Having taken that into account, it is pertinent to note that rendering of the active voice as the passive voice is dependent on verb tense. As such, this treatise will expatiate upon how sentences with different verb tenses can be converted from the active voice to the passive voice. It must be mentioned that the preposition, ‘by’, is deployed in passive constructions.

A) The simple present tense: To convert a sentence with the foregoing tense to the passive voice, we normally deploy ‘is/are + past participle’, as in:

Stella gives Eunice a piggyback every evening (active voice).

Eunice is given a piggyback by Stella every evening (passive voice).

B) The present continuous/progressive tense (am/is/are + present participle): To change a sentence containing the foregoing tense to the passive voice, we normally use ‘is/are + being + past participle’, as evidenced below:

She is sweeping those premises (active voice).

Those premises are being swept by her (passive voice).

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C) The present perfect tense (has/have + past participle): In order to transform a statement with the foregoing tense into the passive voice, it behoves you to use the ‘has/have + been + past participle’ format. Hence:

We have washed the cars (active voice).

The cars have been washed by us (passive voice).

D) The simple past tense: Sentences that contain this verb tense can be rendered as the passive voice by using ‘was/were + past participle’, as corroborated by the accompanying sentence structures:

Joseph ate bread (active voice).

Bread was eaten by Joseph (passive voice).

E) The past continuous/progressive tense (was/were + present participle): Sentences that embody the foregoing tense can be recast as the passive voice by applying the ‘was/were + being + past participle’ format thus:

They were discussing the issue when Bimbo arrived (active voice).

The issue was being discussed by them when Bimbo arrived (passive voice).

F) The past perfect tense (had + past participle): Sentence structures with this verb tense should be represented as the passive voice by using ‘had + been + past participle’. Therefore:

I had done the laundry before Simeon slept (active voice).

The laundry had been done by me before Simeon slept (passive voice).

G) The simple future tense: Sentences embodying this tense can be rendered as the passive voice by deploying ‘will + be + past participle’, as exemplified below:

She will undo the shoelaces (active voice).

The shoelaces will be undone by her (passive voice).

H) The future perfect tense (will + have + past participle): A sentence structure containing this tense can be recast as the passive voice by using ‘will + have + been + past participle’. In essence, we have:

By Friday, I will have completed the project (active voice).

By Friday, the project will have been completed by me (passive voice).

Voice is an important grammatical term in English. It is deployed for different semantic purposes by speakers and writers.Consequentially, this treatise is a simplified note on this grammatical subject matter.

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