Definition and Examples of Voice in Grammar

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In traditional grammar, voice is the quality of a verb that indicates whether its subject acts (active voice) or is acted upon (passive voice).

The distinction between active and passive voice applies only to transitive verbs.

Etymology: From the Latin vocem, "call"

Examples of Active and Passive Voice

In the following sentences, verbs in the active voice are in italics while verbs in the passive voice are in bold.

  • "Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half."
    (Toni Morrison, Jazz. Knopf, 1992)
  • "Mrs. Bridge emerged from her home and spread her umbrella. With small cautious steps, she proceeded to the garage, where she pressed the button and waited impatiently for the door to lift."  (Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge. Viking, 1959)
  • "[Fern] found an old milking stool that had been discarded, and she placed the stool in the sheepfold next to Wilbur's pen." (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, 1952)
  • "When our class was assigned to Mr. Fleagle for third-year English I anticipated another grim year in that dreariest of subjects." (Russell Baker, Growing Up. Congdon & Weed, 1982)
  • "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." (Abraham Lincoln)
  • "I, myself, thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people, probably over the airways, say 'The bullet has been dodged.'"  (President George W. Bush)

Examples and Observations

  • "Because the subject of the sentence often is an actor, or agent, performing the action of the verb, traditional grammars use the term active or active voice to describe the verbs in [these] sentences... (15)
    A dog chews up my newspaper every day.
    The clerk thanked my mother.
    Study the following examples, which contain the same information arranged in a different order: (16)
    My newspaper is chewed up by a dog every day.
    My mother was thanked by the clerk.
    Traditional grammars call the verbs in sentences like those in (16) passive or passive voice, perhaps because in each one the subject of the sentence may be thought of as passively undergoing the action of the verb. Such sentences deemphasize the importance of the performer of the action. In them, the original subject (the actor noun phrase) is moved into an adverbial prepositional phrase (becoming the object of the preposition by)."
    (Thomas Klammer et al., Analyzing English Grammar. Pearson, 2007)

Voice and Mood

"Active (and passive) voice combine almost freely with declarative, interrogative and imperative moods. Five of the six possible combinations occur. For example:

The burglar stole the silver. active voice declarative  
Did the burglar steal the silver? active voice interrogative
Steal the silver! active voice imperative
The silver was stolen by the burglar. passive voice declarative
Was the silver stolen by the burglar? passive voice interrogative

"Although the imperative Steal the silver! doesn't have a subject, it is still said to be active, because we understand You to be the subject, referring to the person who is to do the action, and there is still an object (here the silver), the main thing affected by the action, as in other active sentences.

"Only a hypothetical passive imperative such as *Be stolen by the burglar! is distinctly odd. This is because, when you want to command something to be done, you naturally address the person who is to carry it out, and not the recipient of the action."​
(James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 1994)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Voice in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Examples of Voice in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Voice in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).