Grammatical voice

Grammatical voice

In grammar, the voice (also called gender or diathesis) of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.).When the subject is the agent or actor of the verb, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

For example, in the sentence:

:"The cat ate the mouse."

the verb "ate" is in the active voice, but in the sentence:

:"The mouse was eaten by the cat."

the verbal phrase "was eaten" is passive.

In a transformation from an active-voice clause to an equivalent passive-voice construction, the subject and the direct object switch grammatical roles. The direct object gets "promoted" to subject, and the subject "demoted" to an (optional) complement. In the examples above, "the mouse" serves as the direct object in the active-voice version, but becomes the subject in the passive version. The subject of the active-voice version, "the cat", becomes part of a prepositional phrase in the passive version of the sentence, and could be left out entirely.

The passive voice in English

The English language uses a "periphrastic" passive voice; that is, it is not a single word form, but rather a construction making use of other word forms. Specifically, it is made up of a form of the auxiliary verb "to be" and a past participle of the main verb. In other languages, such as Latin, the passive voice is simply marked on the verb by inflection: "poemam legit" "He reads the poem"; "poema legitur" "The poem is read".

The middle voice

Some languages (such as Sanskrit, Icelandic and Classical Greek) have a middle voice. The middle voice is in the middle of the active and the passive voice because the subject cannot be categorized as either agent or patient but has elements of both. An intransitive verb that appears active but expresses a passive action characterizes the English middle voice. For example, in "The casserole cooked in the oven", "cooked" appears syntactically active but semantically passive, putting it in the middle voice. In Classical Greek, the middle voice is often reflexive, denoting that the subject acts on or for itself, such as "The boy washes himself", or "The boy washes." It can be transitive or intransitive. It can occasionally be used in a causative sense, such as "The father causes his son to be set free", or "The father ransoms his son."

Many deponent verbs in Latin represent survivals of the Proto-Indo-European middle voice; many of these in turn survive as obligatory pseudo-reflexive verbs in the Romance languages such as French and Spanish.

Other grammatical voices

Some languages have even more grammatical voices. For example, Classic Mongolian features five voices: active, passive, causative, reciprocal and cooperative.

The antipassive voice deletes or demotes the object of transitive verbs, and promotes the actor to an intransitive subject. This voice is very common among ergative languages (which may feature passive voices as well), but rare among nominative-accusative languages.

There are also phenomena that look at first glance like they change the valence of a verb, but in fact do not. So called hierarchical or inversion languages are of this sort. Their agreement system will be sensitive to an external person or animacy hierarchy (or a combination of both): 1 > 2 > 3 or Anim > Inan and so forth. E.g., in Meskwaki (an Algonquian language), verbs inflect for both subject and object, but agreement markers do not have inherent values for these. Rather, a third marker, the direct or inverse marker, indicates the proper interpretation: "ne-wa:pam-e:-w-a" [] "I am looking at him", but "ne-wa:pam-ekw-w-a" [] "He is looking at me". Some scholars (notably Rhodes) have analyzed this as a kind of obligatory passivization dependent on animacy, while others have claimed it is not a voice at all, but rather see inversion as yet another kind of alignment type, parallel to nominative/accusative, ergative/absolutive, split-S, and fluid-S alignments.

The passive voice in topic-prominent languages

Topic-prominent languages like Mandarin tend not to employ the passive voice as frequently. Mandarin-speakers construct the passive voice by prefixing the active noun phrase with "bei-" and rearranging the usual word order. For example, this sentence using active voice:

Note: the first line is in Traditional Chinese while the second is Simplified Chinese.


Although a topic-prominent language, Japanese employs the passive voice quite frequently, and has two types of passive voice, one that corresponds to that in English and an indirect passive not found in English. This indirect passive is used when something undesirable happens to the speaker.


The difference between the autonomous and a true passive is that to the speaker, the autonomous indicates that there is in fact no agent, whereas the passive indicates the demotion of an agent. In English, the formation of the passive allows the optional inclusion of an agent in a prepositional phrase, "by the man", etc. Where English would leave out the noun phrase, Irish uses the autonomous, where English includes the noun phrase, Irish uses the passive.

Dynamic and static passive

Some languages draw a distinction between static (or stative) passive voice, and dynamic (or eventive) passive voice. Examples include German, Spanish or Italian. "Static" means that an action was done to the subject at a certain point in time resulting in a state in the time focussed upon, whereas "dynamic" means that an action takes place.

In German

Static passive auxiliary verb: sein

Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: werden

"Ich bin am 20. August geboren" ("I was born on August 20", static)

"Ich wurde am 20. August geboren" ("I became born on August 20", dynamic)

In Spanish

Spanish has three verbs corresponding to English "be": "ser", "estar" and "haber". Two types of passive voice are formed by them. "Ser" is used to form the ordinary (dynamic) passive voice:

:"La puerta es abierta." "The door is opened [by someone] .":"La puerta es cerrada." "The door is closed [by someone] ."

(Note that this construction is very unidiomatic in this case. The usual phrasing would be "La puerta se cierra".)"Estar" is used to form the static passive voice (not regarded as a passive voice in traditional Spanish grammar):

:"La puerta está abierta." "The door is open," i.e. it has been opened.:"La puerta está cerrada." "The door is closed," i.e. it has been closed.

In both cases, the verb's participle is used as the complement (as is sometimes the case in English). The verb "haber" does not form any type of passive voice.

In Italian

Italian uses two verbs ("essere" and "venire") to translate the static and the dynamic passive:

Dynamic passive auxiliary verb: essere and venire (to be and to come):"La porta è aperta." or "La porta viene aperta". "The door is opened [by someone] " or "The door comes open [by someone] ".:"La porta è chiusa." or "La porta viene chiusa". "The door is closed [by someone] " or "The door comes closed [by someone] ".

Static passive auxiliary verb: essere (to be):"La porta è aperta". "The door is open," i.e. it has been opened.:"La porta è chiusa." "The door is closed," i.e. it has been closed.

In Venetian

In Venetian (Vèneto) the difference between dynamic (true) passive and stative (adjectival) passive is more clear cut, using èser (to be) only for the static passives and vegner (to become, to come) only for the dynamic passive:

:"Ła porta ła vien verta". "The door is opened", dynamic:"Ła porta ła xè / l'è verta". "The door is open", static

Static forms represents much more a property or general condition, whereas the dynamic form is a real passive action entailing "by someone":

:"èser proteto". "To be protected = to be in a safe condition", static:"vegner proteto". "To be protected = to be defended (by so)", dynamic

:"èser considarà". "To be considered = to have a (good) reputation", static:"vegner considarà". "To be taken into consideration (by people, by so)", dynamic

:"èser raprexentà (a l'ONU)". "To be represented (at the UN) = to have a representation", static:"vegner raprexentà a l'ONU (da un dełegà)". "To be represented at the UN (by a delegate)", dynamic

List of voices

Voices found in various languages include:
* Active voice
* Passive voice
* Middle voice
* Mediopassive voice
* Impersonal passive voice
* Antipassive voice
* Reflexive voice (the subject and the object of the verb are the same, as in "I cut myself")
* Reciprocal voice (subject and object perform the verbal action to each other, e. g. "I cut her and she cut me")
* Causative voice
* Adjutative voice
* Applicative voice
* Circumstantial voice

ee also

*Anticausative verb
*Grammatical conjugation
*Deponent verb
*Dative shift
*English passive voice
*Valency (linguistics)

External links

* [ Online analyzer of the active and passive voice in writing]

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