Updated 6/18/06
KISS Grammar Workbooks
Active and Passive Voice
Notes for Parents and Teachers
Simon Vouet's
Allegory of Wealth 
Louvre, Paris, France 
Note: For instructional handouts for students, click here.

What Is the Passive Voice?

     Let's start with two sentences that illustrate the difference between active and passive voice:

1.) The Huns destroyed the town. (Active Voice)
2.) The town was destroyed by the Huns. (Passive Voice)
One way of looking at the difference between the two sentences is that in active voice (1), the subject of the verb performs the action designated by the verb, i.e., the subject is "active." In passive voice, the subject of the verb is acted upon, i.e., is "passive," and thus, as some textbooks say, the subject "receives the action of the verb." What we have thus far is what Paul Roberts would have considered to be a "notional" definition -- a definition in terms of meaning.
     The notional definition can be helpful, but it can also be confusing. Given the sentence "He was sleeping," many students would not consider the subject as being "active," and they would also consider the subject as receiving the action of the verb, i.e., getting some rest. But all the grammars that I know of would consider "He was sleeping" as being in active voice. (Don't ask me where the term "voice" comes from -- I don't know.) In essence, to deal with active and passive voice, we need what Roberts calls a "formal" definition.
     According to Roberts, "In English the passive voice is easily recognizable by form: it is always a verb phrase in which the principal verb is in the form of the past participle and in which the auxiliary, or one of the auxiliaries, is some form of the verb to be." (Understanding Grammar, 513) The problem with this definition, of course, is the word "easily." Passive verbs may be easily recognizable to grammarians who can already identify "principal verbs," "participles," and "auxiliaries," but most people, including many teachers, can't. Roberts addresses this problem by providing several examples in which the passive verbs are italicized:
He is suspected of being an accomplice.
They weren't invited.
I'm sure you'll be asked.
Has the starboard pump been repaired?
Someone said he had been seen on the street in Lansing.
They will have been married fifty years next Tuesday.
He's being sent to Camp Stoneman.
The trees are being inspected for aphids.
The leg should have been cut off below the knee.
He may not have been told.
Fortunately, most past participles are regular in form, ending in "-ed." Many, however, end in "-en" -- "Seen," "driven," "frozen," "written," "eaten." And then there are those that are irregular -- ""told," "cut," "put."
     Another problem for most students is that they do not recognize the forms of the verb "to be" -- "is," "are," "was," "were," "will be," "has been," "have been," etc. Then too, in his explanation of active voice, Roberts notes that the passive voice may be formed not only with "to be," but also with the auxiliary "get" (463). Does this mean that "He got drunk" is in passive voice? To answer that, we need to look beyond the formal definition back to the notional. If the sentence means somebody drank him, then it is passive. That interpretation, is, of course, somewhat absurd, but it does illustrate that, in determining what is and what is not in passive voice, students need both definitions -- the formal and the notional. 
     And, I would suggest, if we want them to be able to recognize passive voice, they need numerous examples and regular practice. Although the preceding explanation suggests many of the complications in identifying passive voice, for practical purposes, students will not find it very difficult, especially in the KISS Approach, where they have learned to identify subjects and verbs in the first place.

Ambiguous Cases of Voice

     Although some people hate ambiguity, and although most grammar books are too simplistic to recognize such cases, the voice of a verb can in some cases be seen as ambiguous. Consider the following sentence from Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg":

Songs were sung and glasses thumped on the bar. 

The first verb, "were sung," is definitely passive, and as a result, some readers will carry the "were" into the second clause, reading it as "Songs were sung and glasses *were* thumped on the bar." Such carry-over of auxiliary verbs is typical, and I would probably read the sentence in that way myself. As a teacher, however, I would never impose this reading on students because some students might well read "thumped" as active voice -- glasses made banging sounds on the bar.

Why Teach (or Study) Active and Passive Voice?

     The active / passive voice distinction is not central to sentence structure -- is it not primarily a question of nexus or modification. This means that students do not need the distinction in order to explain how every word in any sentence chunks to the main S/V/C pattern. Why then should they learn it? There are two answers to that question. First, it is important to good reading. Passive voice eliminates the "doer" of the action expressed in the verb and thereby side-steps the question of responsibility:

Taxes were raised.
A bomb was dropped.
Workers were laid off.
People who recognize passive voice are much more likely to ask "Who raised the taxes?" "Who dropped the bomb?" "Who laid off the workers?" And, in turn, the "Who?" question leads to "Why?" Many teachers believe that the ability to recognize passive voice makes students more responsible readers -- and more effective citizens.
     Unfortunately, some teachers push this too far and simply forbid the use of passive voice. This is somewhat silly in that these teachers forbid the use of passive voice in a context in which most students can't recognize passive voice. The result is that the teachers object to passive voice, when they recognize it in the students' writing, but students, not understanding, simply do what the teacher says and shrug off the question. Thus, the second reason for teaching passive voice, especially in a KISS context, is to enable students to understand -- and even object to -- what these extremist teachers are demanding. 
     If passive voice did not have an important function in the language, it would not exist in the first place. There are many cases in which the doer of the action is not known -- "Two people were killed in a drive-by shooting." And there are many cases in which the doer is either obvious or irrelevant -- "In this restoration project, the houses on Liberty Street will be torn down and replaced by condominiums." And there are cases in which the flow and focus of the information makes the passive more effective -- "Tom Jones died Wednesday. He was killed in an automobile accident." The focus here is on Tom Jones, and thus putting "He" in the subject position makes much more sense than does "An automobile accident killed him." Instead of simply forbidding passive voice, teachers should enable students to recognize it, and then discuss the options -- and the effects of these options -- that passive voice provides.

Retained Complements after Passive Voice

     Retained complements are simply predicate nouns, predicate adjectives, indirect or direct objects  that appear after passive verbs, whether finite or verbals:

Bill was given a dollar.
Many textbooks, if they deal with them at all, call these "retained objects." For reasons that we need not go into here, passive verbs don't take direct objects. Thus in passive constructions such as "Bill was given a dollar," "dollar" is said to be "retained" from the active voice version of the sentence -- "Someone gave Bill a dollar."
     Expanding the concept to include predicate nouns and predicate adjectives simplifies explanations:
a.) Murray was considered foolish. 
b.) Terri was made a queen for a day.
These two examples are identical except that the first ends with a retained predicate adjective, the second with a retained predicate noun. If we exclude the concept of retained predicate adjectives and nouns, then (a) requires the following explanation:
"Murray was considered foolish" is the passive form of the active: "Someone considered Murray foolish." "Murray" is the subject, and "foolish" is the predicate adjective of the ellipsed infinitive "to be," which functions as the direct object of "considered." In the passive version, the ellipsed infinitive is the retained object and "foolish" is a predicate adjective after it. 
Rather than go through this cumbersome technical explanation, we can simply explain them as a  "retained predicate adjective" or a "retained predicate noun."
     Although a structural understanding of retained predicate nouns and adjectives involves ellipsed infinitives, the infinitives themselves usually do not appear in the sentences. In working with students who have not yet studied infinitives, you may occasionally run across sentences such as "Murray was considered to be foolish." But these are relatively rare, and you can simply invoke the KISS principle that students are expected to make such mistakes. Thus, as soon as students begin to study passive voice, you can have them mark any complement that appears after passives as "retained."
     As a final observation here, note that patterns with retained predicate nouns and adjectives can also be explained in terms of palimpsest patterns. From this perspective, in "Murray was considered foolish," the verb "was considered" is written over the verb "was." Thus "foolish" is a predicate adjective in the underlying pattern, "Murray was foolish." Similarly, in "Terri was made a queen for a day," the verb "was made" is written over the verb "was." 

Sliding Constructions -- Passive Voice or Predicate Adjective?

      If your students are like many of mine, they will have been marking words such as "written," in "The book was written," as predicate adjectives. Traditional grammar textbooks usually do not include this explanation, but sometimes the students may be right. In their focus on simple constructions, most grammar textbooks simply ignore ambiguous cases, or what KISS refers to as "sliding constructions." Consider, however, the following sentence:

He was frustrated by the long series of questions.
Traditional grammars usually consider "was frustrated" as a passive verb, but students (and some linguists) suggest that it can be explained as an S/V/PA pattern with "frustrated" explained as a predicate adjective. (Technically, it is a gerundive that functions as a predicate adjective, but students who have not studied gerundives will simply consider them to be adjectives.) This is an interesting explanation that probably deserves some exploration, but the problem with it is that it can eliminate the whole question of passive voice and the stylistic questions associated with it. Throughout the analysis keys, therefore, KISS usually explains verbs such as "were frustrated" as simply S/V patterns with "frustrated" as part of the finite verb. 
      There are, however, some cases in which the question specifically arises. Consider:
He was sleepy and frustrated by the long series of questions.
"Sleepy" clearly creates an S/V/PA pattern, and the "and" joins "sleepy" and "frustrated." Since "and" joins grammatical equals, it makes sense here to consider "frustrated" as a gerundive functioning as a predicate adjective. And, in some cases, I would invite students to look at a sentence in both ways:
The tree had been cut down two feet above the ground.
If we look at "had been cut down" as a passive verb, the question becomes "Who cut it down?" On the other hand, if we look at "cut" as a gerundive functioning as a predicate adjective, the question becomes "What are we going to do with this two-foot stump?" Looking at the sentence from both perspectives enables students to see, and perhaps control, some of the ambiguity in sentence structure.
     Note: Since there is not always an either/or distinction between passive voice and an S/V/PA pattern, in a classroom situation, I would probably be very liberal in what I accepted as a correct answer. I would be more interested in having the students discuss their perspectives on the answers.

Note about KISS Exercises on Passive Voice

     Many teachers and parents feel that directions for exercises should include examples of what students are expected to do. Thus, we might have:

Directions: If the sentence is in active voice, rewrite it in passive. If it is in passive, rewrite it in active.
Q. He sold the baseball card. 
A. The baseball card was sold by him.

Q. The book was stolen.
A. Someone stole the book.

The examples are justified when students are just beginning their study of active and passive voice, but they should be eliminated as soon as possible. Very simply, students can look at the examples and use their excellent , subconscious command of English to do the exercises without remembering, or even thinking about, the "active/passive voice" distinction. In other words, many students can get a perfect score on such exercises and still not know what "active" and "passive" voice means. This, in part, may explain why some teachers complain that students do well on the grammar exercises but they cannot apply what they learned to their writing -- or to discussions of it.