i love english language

1.9 Active & Passive

9. Active & Passive

Active Voice, Passive Voice, Subject, Object, Agent, Foregrounding, End Focus

The dog saw the cat.

The cat was seen by the dog.

Can you explain the difference in terms of

a)      how the reader is affected?

b)      what the writer is up to?

…which are effectively two sides of the same coin – two ways of explaining the same thing.

The first sentence is written in the active voice, the second is written in the passive voice.

As you can see they have swapped subjects – the subject always starts the sentence – but the agent (the person or thing doing whatever the verb describes) remains the same in both – i.e. the dog.

So why would a writer swap around the subject and object of such a sentence?

One reason shines through in the following example:

The cat was seen.

…what a slight of hand on the part of the writer, they’ve just magicked away the agent; why might they want to do this?

                        Man killed with a hose-pipe.

                        Diana Was Murdered!

                        The window was broken.

                        The world’s environment is being callously destroyed.

…by dropping the agent completely, as opposed to just tagging him on at the end as the object, the writer has really achieved something special.

                        Wayne killed the man with a hose-pipe

                        Someone unknown murdered Diana!

                        I broke the window.

                        Man is callously destroying the world’s environment.

Otherwise, we have to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. What is this sentence essentially about, first and foremost?
  2. What does the author want us to be considering before all else in this sentence?

Man killed with a hose-pipe by Wayne.

                        Diana Was Murdered By Unknown Man!

                        The window was broken by me.

                        The world’s environment is being callously destroyed by man.

The technical term foregrounding will help you to explain the effect being achieved by the author – in the first example above, the author has decided to foreground the victim as opposed to the random man who committed the crime. Why? To solicit your sympathy for the victim as opposed to your anger at the perpetrator?

Any sentence is obviously about its subject, the person, place or thing before the sentence’s main verb. What comes afterwards is just information about them, there or that.

The United Kingdom invaded France.

France was invaded by the United Kingdom.

Once you notice that something is being foregrounded in a sentence, either through using the passive voice, or remaining in the active voice, or maybe through starting the sentence off with a certain prepositional phrase or non-finite-clause, you will be able to assess what the author wants you to be considering before all else.

With considerable aplomb, Charles threw his soup spoon at the Queen’s Corgi.

Running like the wind, the old lady caught up with her attacker.

And just to confuse you, but the following is true if you care to think about it, whatever is left dangling at the end of a sentence gains more of the reader’s attention than what is squashed into its inners – this is called end focus. Consider the following example.

It won’t be long before we forget all about those pupils who tried but failed.

All those pupils who tired but failed will soon be forgotten.

Note how the passive voice can be spotted easily if we keep on the lookout for the little word “by”. However, passives can also be formed with the little word “got”. And if the agent is dropped completely, the only hint that the passive voice is being used is that you won’t know who is doing whatever is being referred to – but only a very discerning reader will be able to figure this out. Only sentences of the type SVO can be twisted around in this fashion and so have active or passive forms. It makes no sense to talk of active or passive forms of other sentence types.

Task: Write an article to be printed in “The Daily Mail” about the issue of immigration. Try to use the active and passive voice, as well as using foregrounding in other ways, and end-focus, to achieve your aim – to present these people as a threat to our way of life and our very survival.

….anotgher way of looking at it…

The active voice is the “normal” voice. This is the voice that we use most of the time. In the active voice, the object receives the action of the verb:

active voice


subject                 verb                      object


Cats                     eat             fish.

Here the sentence’s subject is also the action’s agent – the person or thing doing the action.

The passive voice is less usual. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:

passive voice


subject                          verb             object


Fish                               are eaten                   by cats.

The object of the active verb has become the subject of the passive verb. Also, Here he sentence’s agent– the person or thing doing the action – is now the sentence’s object, and the sentence’s new subject is said to be the passive subject, as it isn’t doing the action.

Only sentences which have a direct object can be said to be in the active or passive voice;


a) Tom            killed               the cat.


b) Tom                        is                     a silly boy.


c) Sean            went                to the shop.


Sentence a) is of the form S – V – O, and so can be turned around into the passive voice.


a) The cat                    was killed                    by Tom.



a) The cat                    was killed.


However, sentence b) is of the form S – V – C – where C is the subject’s complement, i.e. it is giving more information about the subject, and so isn’t an independent object within the sentence.




b) A silly boy               is                     Tom.


            This isn’t a sentence in the passive voice, no more than the original is a sentence in the active voice.




b) A silly boy               is.


And, sentence c) is of the form S – V – A, where A is an adverbial, which is giving more information about the verb (i.e. where he is going to), and so isn’t an independent object within the sentence.




c) To the shop             went                Sean.




c) To the shop             went.


            …these sentences just don’t work.


So, to properly speak about the active and passive voice we need sentences in which a subject does something to an independent object, such as a dog chasing a cat, an author writing a prize winning novel, a mysterious figure killing John F Kennedy, or a window being broken.


What to look out for – Passive voice can be formed with the preposition “by”, but if the agent is dropped it can be more difficult to spot.


The larger problem is explaining why the active and passive voices are significant – what does their use tell us about the author’s intentions? As the active voice is normal or neutral and so usually not worthy of comment, we should be on the look out for where the author chooses to break with the norm and use the passive voice.


Every instance of the passive voice will be different, so you need to see how it all works in action. So write a piece about someone doing something to something, e.g. a newspaper report on parents slowing their children’s language acquisition by talking in gibberish (i.e. motherese) and then convert it to the passive voice.


Comment on the use of the passive voice. Consider:


a)      how the order of the sentence has been changed (e.g. front-focusing)

b)      the effect of the agent being dropped

c)      who’s side the writer is on – the foolish parents or the poor little kids

d)      how the reader’s attention is being corralled



2 Responses

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  1. supriya said, on November 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    fish is eaten al over the world change in passive voice

    • aggslanguage said, on November 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm

      this is the passive voice – who is eating the fish? the agent? active form would be “People all over the world eat fish.”

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