Monday, June 3, 2013

What is passive voice?

First, I think we ought to ask, "What is irony?"

The answer:  not what most people think it is. 

I've heard a surprising variety of people misidentify passive voice.  Diligent college students.  Well-informed writers.  Even people authoritative enough to make me question:  "Have I studied Latin for eight years and not grasped what the passive voice is?  Does it mean something totally different in English?" 

NO.  No, it does not.  They were wrong.

So let's clear this up, once and for all...


By the way, if you already are quite clear on what the passive voice is, and you have friends, family, enemies, or frienemies in your life who get this wrong, feel free to direct them here. So as not to offend them right away, just say it's a post that contains a video of Darth Vader riding a unicycle and playing the bagpipes in a kilt--which they obviously must see.

Talk about universal appeal.

ANYWAY, passive voice.

Definition of passive voice:  when the object acted upon (rather than the actor) is the subject of the sentence


Active voice:  Darth Vader played the bagpipes.
            NOTE:  Darth Vader is both the subject of the sentence and the actor of the action.

Passive voice:  The bagpipes were played by Darth Vader.
           NOTE:  Instead of the actor, Darth Vader, being the subject, the object acted upon--here the bagpipes--is the subject of the sentence.

That, and only that, constitutes passive voice.  You can talk about semi-passives and passive participles, but that's not actually, necessarily passive voice.  Check out UNC Chapel Hill's explanation if you don't believe me.   They provide numerous other examples.

And now, I will leave you and Darth Vader to go on your merry way. 


  1. What you have here is completely accurate, but I think people's trouble with understanding passive voice is that they often can't even tell you the difference between a subject and an object. Passives are hard to understand without knowing those two.

    personally, I remember passive voice like this: a bar was walked into by a passive sentence construction. ;)

    1. Hi Peter! Probably true, but the last couple people who have driven me nuts with this definitely knew the difference between a subject and object. If I was talking to someone who didn't know basic grammar, I wouldn't expect them to be able to identify passive voice, and I wouldn't be terribly disturbed if they couldn't. :) And haha, that's a funny memory device!

  2. I think this might be the most creative grammar lesson I've ever seen. I've never heard the Star Wars theme played on the bagpipes, much less by Darth Vader riding a unicycle in a kilt. Who knew Darth was Scottish Totally made my day! :)

    1. Haha! Glad to entertain, Erin! Everyone should see that clip, really.

  3. I am very pleased to discover that I do indeed know what passive voice is ;)

  4. I had this pop up a bazillion times when I was running a spelling/grammar check on my WIP. I had to Google it so that I could get a better idea of what it meant and it has helped my writing a lot. Nice post! :)

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