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The parameter involved in the contrast between basic (active) clauses and passive clauses is known as 'voice'. We can talk about the active voice and the passive voice. More generally, in English grammar 'voice' is used to talk about the alignment of functions with semantic roles and information packaging.

The passive voice is used when the speaker or writer wants to avoid identifying the agent in a transitive clause. For example, instead of saying I accidentally smashed the vase into a million pieces, which is in the active voice (rather unfortunately identifying the speaker as a klutz), it is sometimes more expedient to say The vase was smashed into a million pieces, using the passive voice (and making no comment on how it happened). In this section we describe the grammatical differences between the active and passive voice in English.


1. Active and passive clauses

2. Short passives

3. Passives of ditransitive clauses

4. Prepositional passives

5. Get-passives

Related pages

Information structure

Active and passive clauses

Let's begin with a basic transitive clause in the active voice:

The horse ate the carrot.

In this example the horse is the grammatical subject and refers to the agent or 'doer' of the clause whereas the carrot is the grammatical object and the semantic patient of the event. This is the usual alignment of grammatical role with semantic role for transitive clauses. The passive version of the clause looks like this:

The carrot was eaten (by the horse).

Now the patient of the event (the carrot) is in the role of the subject and the agent of the event (the horse) is treated as a rather peripheral piece of information (appearing in an optional prepositional phrase).

The passive voice involved two changes to the basic transitive clause. One is to associate the agent and patient with different grammatical roles. The other is to change the way the verb is marked for tense.

Both the active and the passive versions of this example are in the past tense. The difference is that the passive voice requires the auxiliary be as the tensed verb in the clause (giving us was) while the main verb is in the past participle form (in this case, eaten).

To summarise, the difference between active and passive clauses involves:

1. moving the object of the basic clause into subject position,

2. moving the subject of the basic clause into an optional peripheral prepositional phrase,

3. moving the tense from the verb onto the auxiliary be, and

4. using the past participle form of the main verb.

Note that not all 'active' clauses contain activity type verbs. This is just a convenient shorthand term that reflects the fact that prototypical passives omit the semantic agent (doer) of the basic clause.

Sarah heard the shouting. [active clause]

The shouting was heard by Sarah. [passive clause]

Short passives

Short passives omit the underlying subject in the active clause. Short passives do not readily allow conversion to active clauses because the agent of the action is omitted. This is one of the key reasons for using passives – particularly useful in contexts where the agency of the action is problematic to the speaker or writer. Try making active sentences out of the following:

My car was hit in the car park yesterday.

The lemon tree was brutally pruned.

A decision was made.

Passives of ditransitive clauses

Ditransitive clauses have two objects encoding the item being transferred (the undergoer) and the recipient (of the item). They alternate with constructions containing prepositional phrases to encode the recipient.



Indirect Object

Direct Object




fifty cents.



Direct Object

Prepositional phrase



fifty cents

to George.

Corresponding passives are shown below.

Passive of indirect object:
George was given fifty cents by Sara.

Passive of direct object (prepositional phrase not indirect object):
Fifty cents was given to George by Sara.

Prepositional passives

It is also possible to form passives by turning the complement of the preposition in an active clause into the subject of the passive clause.

Basic clause

Passive clause

The cat has played on the couch.

The couch has been played on.

Debbie abided by their decision.

Their decision was abided by.

They asked for water.

Water was asked for.


In addition to be-passives it is also possible to form passives using the verb get. Passives constructed in this way are stylistically more informal that be-passives.

My car got hit in the car park yesterday.

The lemon tree got brutally pruned.

A decision got made.

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