What Is Voice in Grammar?

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Voice (Grammar)

Voice is the term used to describe whether a verb is active or passive.

In other words, when the subject of the verb is doing the action of the verb (e.g., "The dog bit the postman."), the verb is said to be in the active voice. When the subject of the verb is being acted upon (e.g., "The postman was bitten."), the verb is said to be in the passive voice. So, the voice of a verb tells us whether the subject is acting or being acted upon.

What Is the Active Voice?

If the subject is performing the action, then the verb is said to be in the active voice. Look at this:

active voice

What Is the Passive Voice?

If the subject is having the action done to it, then the verb is said to be in the passive voice. Look at this:

passive voice

Easy Examples of Voice

Here are some more examples of verbs (shown in bold) in the active voice.
  • Lee ate the pies.
  • (Lee is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
  • We play hopscotch.
  • (We is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
  • The sharks will attack the cage.
  • (The sharks is the subject of the verb. The subject is doing the action of the verb.)
Here are some more examples of verbs in the passive voice.
  • The pies were eaten by Lee.
  • (The pies is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)
  • Hopscotch is played by us.
  • (Hopscotch is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)
  • The cage will be attacked by the sharks.
  • (The cage is the subject of the verb. The subject is being acted upon.)

Real-Life Examples of Voice

In the examples above, the actions of the verbs (to eat, to play, to attack) are obvious physical activities. Remember though that not all verbs describe such obvious activities. This is particularly true for verbs in the active voice. The verbs in these four examples are all in the active voice.
  • Dogs sniff good smells with their left nostril.
  • I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too. (Queen Elizabeth I)
  • The voice of Mickey Mouse and the voice of Minnie Mouse became husband and wife in real life.
  • Only a quarter of the Sahara Desert is sandy.
Here are some verbs in the passive voice with less obvious actions.
  • At one time, Melbourne was known as Batmania.
  • Philosophy was considered science once. (Satirist PJ O'Rourke)
Only a verb that acts on something else (called a transitive verb) can be written in the passive voice.
  • More people are killed taking selfies than in shark attacks.
  • (To kill is a transitive verb; i.e., you kill something.)
  • That tiny pocket in jeans was designed to store pocket watches.
  • (To design is a transitive verb; i.e., you design something.)
  • Avocados were named after the Nahuatl word for testicles.
  • (To name is a transitive verb; i.e., you name something.)
If a verb is intransitive (i.e., it does not act on something else), it will always be in the active voice.
  • Being English, I always laugh at anything about the lavatory or bottoms. (Actress Elizabeth Hurley)
  • (To laugh is an intransitive verb. You can't laugh a dog, for example.)
  • Anybody who smiles automatically looks better. (Actress Diane Lane)
  • (To smile and to look are intransitive verbs. You can't smile a dog or look a dog, for example.)
  • Our noses and ears grow throughout our lives.
  • (Here, to grow is an intransitive verb.)
Other common intransitive verbs are to cry, to die, to disappear, and to wait. Remember that these cannot be used in the passive voice. As intransitive verbs don't act on something (i.e., have no objects), there is nothing to become the subject of a verb in the passive voice.

It gets a little bit more complicated because some verbs, like to grow, can be intransitive or transitive.
  • I grew tomatoes.
  • (Here, to grow is transitive. That means we can make it passive.)
  • Tomatoes were grown by me.
  • (This is the passive version.)
  • The beanstalk grew quickly.
  • (Here, to grow means to get bigger. In this meaning, it is intransitive. That means we can't make it passive. The beanstalk was got bigger quickly. That's nonsense.)
Read more about transitive verbs and intransitive verbs.

Here's something else to look out for. It is extremely common for verbs in the active voice and the passive voice to be used after words like can, cannot, may, might, must, and should (called modal auxiliary verbs).
  • He who is to be a good ruler must have been ruled. (Philosopher Aristotle)
  • (Is is in the active voice. Have been ruled, which follows the modal must, is in the passive voice.)
  • Canadians say "sorry" so much that The Apology Act was passed in 2009, declaring that an apology cannot be used as evidence of admission of guilt.
  • (Was passed is in the passive voice. Be used, which follows the modal cannot, is also in the passive voice.)
It is common for verbs in the active voice and passive voice to appear in the same sentence.
  • Theodore Roosevelt owned a pet hyena, which was given to him by an Ethiopian emperor.
  • (Owned is in the active voice. Was given is in the passive voice.)
  • My music was considered uncool, but I always felt a connection with the audience. (Singer David Cassidy)
  • (Was considered is in the passive voice. Felt is in the active voice.)
  • The scary thing is that in my lifetime, 95 per cent of the world's rhinos have been killed.
  • (Is is in the active voice. Have been killed is in the passive voice.)

Why Should I Care about Voice?

There are four good reasons to care about grammatical voice.

(Reason 1) The active voice offers some great benefits.

Writers tend to opt for the active voice over the passive voice for the following reasons:
  • (Reason 1) The active voice is more succinct.
  • (Reason 2) The active voice is more direct.
  • (Reason 3) The active voice is more informative.
  • (Reason 4) The active voice is more authoritative.
  • (Reason 5) The active voice is more engaging.
(NB: Each of these benefits is explained in more detail on the active sentences page.)

(Reason 2) The passive voice offers some great benefits.

Here are four benefits of the passive voice.
  • (Reason 1) The passive voice can be used to avoid blame.
  • (Reason 2) The passive voice shows a neutral or objective tone.
  • (Reason 3) The passive voice is often appropriate when the doer of the verb is obvious, unimportant or unknown.
  • (Reason 4) The passive voice allows you to focus on what's important by bringing it to the front of your sentence.
(NB: Each of these benefits is explained in more detail on the passive sentences page.)

(Reason 3) Use both the active and passive voice, as required.

Even though the passive voice has its benefits, the bias for the active voice is so strong that proofreaders (real people) and grammar checkers (computer programs) will often try "to correct" a passive construction to an active one.



Have the confidence to ignore your grammar checker. Use the active voice and the passive voice, as required, to control the flow of text and to stress the most important parts of your sentences. Look at these sentences written in active voice:
  • King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. He placed limits on his powers and proclaimed certain liberties.
Now compare the mixed sentences telling the same information:
  • In 1215, the Magna Carta was signed by King John. He placed limits on his powers and proclaimed certain liberties.
There are two important things happening in our second example. First, we've made the Magna Carta the subject of the sentence to highlight what we're talking about. Second, we've ended our sentence with King John. As the first word of the second sentence is He, our text now flows smoothly.

(Reason 4) Are you even dealing with the passive voice?

It's not uncommon for proofreaders and grammar checkers to identify something as passive voice that is, in fact, active voice.

Proofreaders and grammar checkers look for passive-voice constructions by finding a form of the verb "to be" (e.g., am, are, is, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being, be) followed by a past participle (i.e., the form of the verb that typically ends in -ed or -en). Most of the time, this system works.
Form of the verb to bePast participlePassive voice
amlicensedI am licensed to kill.
wasdevelopedIt was developed last year.
has beenseenHe has been seen in France.
will have beeneatenIt will have been eaten by then.
Remember that modals like can, cannot, could, might, and should can also feature.
ModalForm of the verb to bePast ParticiplePassive voice
cannotbelicensedI cannot be licensed to kill.
mightbedevelopedIt might be developed last year.
shouldhave beenseenHe should have been seen in France.
couldhave beeneatenIt could have been eaten by then.
However, some constructions that look like the passive voice aren't. Here's an example:
  • I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific. (Actress Lily Tomlin)
  • (There is no past participle after have been.)
Here's an example of something that looks a lot like passive voice but isn't:
  • All the mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have been drunk. (Artist Tracy Emin)
  • (There is no past participle after have been. Here, drunk is an adjective and not part of the verb, even though drunk is the past participle of to drink. Confused? Think of it like this: the subject of the verb (I) is not being acted upon.)
This is passive voice:
  • I have been drunk under the table by Russian sailors.
  • (Here, the subject of the verb (I) is being acted upon. "The Russian sailors drank me under the table" is an active-voice version.)
Here's another example of something that looks a lot like passive voice but isn't:
  • Europeans were scared of eating tomatoes when they were introduced.
  • (Were is in the active voice. Were introduced is in the passive voice. Here, were scared looks like it's in the passive voice, especially because scared is the past participle of to scare. However, scared is not part of the verb in this example. It's an adjective meaning afraid.)
So, it's quite understandable why some proofreaders and grammar checkers confuse the passive voice with an active-voice sentence that features the verb "to be" in one of its forms. Here's a pretty good trick to avoid that mistake, and it's fun.

If you can include the term "by zombies" after your verb and it still makes sense, then you're dealing with the passive voice. (Thanks to Dean of Academics and Deputy Director Rebecca Johnson for this tip.)
  • The car could have been stolen…by zombies.
  • (This makes sense. Therefore, have been stolen is in the passive voice.)
  • The car could have been illicit…by zombies.
  • (This makes no sense. Therefore, have been illicit is in the active voice.)
As a native English speaker, you're probably already great at deciding between active and passive voice. You are pretty safe to let your instinct guide you, but, as a general rule, you should try to use the active voice unless you specifically want one of the benefits offered by the passive voice.

Here's a great example of a proofreader trying way too hard to avoid the passive voice:
  • When the author of Diabetes for Dummies (Dr Alan Rubin) wrote "The patient was comatose and was given thyroid hormone," his editors changed it to "The patient was comatose and took thyroid hormone." In response to this edit, Rubin said: "These are extremely sick patients. They can't take care of themselves. They have to be passive whether Wiley [style guide] likes it or not."
  • (Better a passive sentence than an inappropriate one.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are verbs? What is the subject of a sentence? What is the object of a sentence? What is the active voice? What is the passive voice? What is an active sentence? What is a passive sentence?