Different languages use various grammatical forms to indicate passive voice.
In some languages, passive voice is indicated by verb conjugation, specific forms of the verb. Examples of languages that indicate voice through conjugation include Latin and North Germanic languages such as Swedish.
|Vīnum ā servō portātur.
||Vinet bärs av tjänaren.
||"The wine is carried by the servant." (passive voice)
|Servus vīnum portat.
||Tjänaren bär vinet.
||"The servant carries the wine." (active voice)
Norwegian (Nynorsk) and Icelandic have a similar system, but the usage of the passive is more restricted. The passive forms in Nynorsk are restricted to only be accompanied by an auxiliary verb, which is not the case in Swedish and Danish.
In Latin, the agent of a passive sentence (if indicated) is expressed using a noun in the ablative case, in this case servō (the ablative of servus). Different languages use different methods for expressing the agent in passive clauses. In Swedish, the agent can be expressed by means of a prepositional phrase with the preposition av (equivalent here to the English "by").
The Austronesian language Kimaragang Dusun also indicates passive voice by verb conjugation using the infix, -in-.
Other languages, including English, express the passive voice periphrastically, using an auxiliary verb.
English, like some other languages, uses a periphrastic passive. Rather than conjugating directly for voice, English uses the past participle form of the verb plus an auxiliary verb, either be or get (called linking verbs in traditional grammar), to indicate passive voice.
- The money was donated to the school.
- The vase got broken during the fight.
- All men are created equal.
If the agent is mentioned, it usually appears in a prepositional phrase introduced by the preposition by.
- Without agent: The paper was marked.
- With agent: The paper was marked by Mr. Tan.
The subject of the passive voice usually corresponds to the direct object of the corresponding active-voice formulation (as in the above examples), but English also allows passive constructions in which the subject corresponds to an indirect object or preposition complement:
- We were given tickets. (subject we corresponds to the indirect object of give)
- Tim was operated on yesterday. (subject Tim corresponds to the complement of the preposition on)
In sentences of the second type, a stranded preposition is left. This is called the prepositional passive or pseudo-passive (although the latter term can also be used with other meanings).
The active voice is the dominant voice used in English. Many commentators, notably George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language" and Strunk & White in The Elements of Style, have urged minimizing use of the passive voice, but this is almost always based on these commentators' misunderstanding of what the passive voice is. What they want to criticize are sentences whose content and style are weak and "passive" in a figurative sense but often in fact have verbs in the active voice. In addition, many of these commentators naively use the passive voice themselves in criticizing what are in fact sentences with verbs in the active voice, whereby they demonstrate that they do not always follow their own recommendations. Contrary to common incorrect critical claims about the passive voice, it has important uses, and virtually all writers use the passive voice, including Orwell and Strunk & White themselves. They even used it much more often than is usual in prose writing in general. (In the case of Orwell, more than 50% more often than the examples with the highest usage in studies cited below.)
There is general agreement that the passive voice is useful for emphasis, or when the receiver of the action is more important than the actor.
Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage refers to three statistical studies of passive versus active sentences in various periodicals, stating: "the highest incidence of passive constructions was 13 percent. Orwell runs to a little over 20 percent in "Politics and the English Language". Clearly he found the construction useful in spite of his advice to avoid it as much as possible".