Not every sentence that has a form of the verb to be is in passive voice. Are you surprised?
I had lunch with an old friend last weekend and we got to talking about passive voice, because that’s how we roll. Something came up about verbs such as “were” and “was” that I think is confusing to a lot of people. I know it was confusing to her, and by the end of the conversation it was even confusing to me. Here’s the deal: many people think any sentence that has a verb like is, was, or were is passive voice, but that’s not true.
A passive sentence is when the object of the sentence gets promoted to the subject position.
Here’s an active sentence:
I mailed the letter.
I is the subject, is taking the action, and is in the subject position; and the letter is the object, is being acted on, and is in the standard object position.
If you flip it around and promote the object—the letter—to the subject position before the verb, you get a passive sentence:
The letter was mailed by me.
All passive sentences have a form of the verb to be such as was or were or is in them, but not all sentences that have those verbs are passive.
Sometimes people miss the point that the sentence must have an object (the receiver of the action) to be able to be phrased in the passive voice. If a sentence doesn’t have an object, you can’t move words around to make it passive. In a passive voice sentence, that object—the receiver of the action, the letter in this case—is in the subject position in the sentence.
The letter was mailed by me.
Sometimes a sentence will leave off the “by me” part, and you’ll end up with something like this:
The letter was mailed.
Notice that the receiver of the action is still in the subject position. If you’re trying to figure out whether a sentence is in the passive voice, one trick is to see if you can add ‘by so-an-so” to the end. If you can, it’s in passive voice.
A passive voice sentence must have an object. Here’s an active sentence with no object:
There’s no way to make that passive without adding something.
Let’s think back to the earlier sentence: A letter was mailed by me. It has the verb was in it, and many people will look at that sentence and say, “Ah-ha! It’s in passive because it has was.” But the was isn’t the reason; it’s just a clue. The reason is that the object of the action—the letter—is in the subject position. The word was is just a clue.
Active Voice Sentences Can Use Is, Was, Were and Other Forms of the Verb To Be
Here’s an active sentence that uses was:
I was running.
I, the person doing the running, is still in the subject position, just like the active sentence before: We ran.
We ran is in the simple past tense, and I was running is in what’s called the past continuous tense.
Whereas the simple past tense is used to talk about something that happened in the past, the past continuous tense is used to talk about something that happened in the past but was interrupted. It’s more obvious in longer sentences. Here are some examples:
- We were running when I tripped.
- We were running when it started to rain.
- We were running when Bob called on my cell phone.
The was in those sentences has nothing to do with active or passive voice. It’s what’s called a helping verb or an auxiliary verb, and it comes before the main verb in its participle form: running.
How to Recognize a Passive Voice Sentence
The point today isn’t to learn about all the verb tenses though, it’s just to make sure you know that when you’re trying to figure out if a sentence is in the passive voice, the questions to ask are “Is the object in the subject position?” and “Can I add ‘by so-and-so’ to the end?” not “Does the sentence have was or were or is in it?”
All passive sentences do have a form of the verb to be such as was or were or is in them,* but not all sentences that have those verbs are passive.
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* I got my “always have a form of the verb to be in them” information from a couple of credible university writing center sites. However, the linguistics website Language Log has a post that gives examples of passive voice sentences that do not contain a form of the verb to be. (See point #5 of the post.) Check out the Language Log post for a much deeper discussion of passive voice.