We get a lot of questions on active and passive voice. The current count is up to 425. 90% of these questions are low-effort homework questions along the lines of:

I've been given these sentences and I need to convert them into passive voice. What is the passive voice form of this sentence? (and/or) Is this the correct passive voice form of this sentence?

These are not questions that are going to be useful to future ELL members, as is evidenced by the fact that it's had to be asked another 424 times after the first answer was given. What would be very useful to learners is an explanation of how you turn any sentence into passive voice, what passive voice is, why they should or shouldn't use it, a side note on why this is so often given as a homework assignment... I saw another "please convert my sentence" post today, and I was itching to close it as a duplicate, but try as I might I couldn't find a prior question with a satisfactory catch-all answer.

So! I'm calling for volunteers to write a Canonical Post (TM) on passive voice, answering the following question (feel free to tweak):

I have a sentence, and I need to change it into passive voice. What rules can I follow to reliably make this change? When is it a good idea to use passive voice, and when is it not? Why am I often asked to make this change as a homework assignment?

Why should you volunteer? Your meta post will get tagged with the shiny canonical-post tag, and will be featured on meta. Don't forget bragging rights, and the accumulation of meaningless Internet Points (that'll be rep, for those who aren't as hopelessly enmeshed in SE memes as I!). And a sense of satisfaction every time you can close a generic passive voice question with a link to your meta post.

So, any takers? Volunteering is easy, just post an answer to this question. (And if you have another topic you'd like to write about, I'd love to hear that too!) If you're not sure what's involved in the process or have any questions, post a comment and I'll clear it up for you :)

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  • This is very interesting! and I agree that we should do something about it. I do have my own theory why the passive transformation was added to pedagogical English as a second language. And I can help collect patterns used in learner's grammar textbooks/courses. I've been gathering these patterns from textbooks (particularly in Wren & Martin, a well-known book used in India) and lecture notes around the web (which include an exotic term such as quasi-passive) for a while, but haven't really organized them. I think it's high time I organized them! – Damkerng T. Sep 25 '15 at 7:41
  • About my own theory why it's taught and so emphasized in the classroom, off the top of my head, the transformation is useful because a) the learner needs to know the difference, e.g., between "He gave me a book", "The book was given to me", and "I was given a book"; and b) it aids sentence parsing, e.g. a learner is usually confused by "He was calling", "He was called", "He has called", and also "He's called" -- A quick search landed me on my old answer here: why “was” is used in Perfect past tense?. And we still have more advanced patterns. – Damkerng T. Sep 25 '15 at 7:55
  • The proposed question is really three separate questions. @Mamta D's answer addresses the middle question: "When is it a good idea to use passive voice?" – Jasper Sep 26 '15 at 0:48
  • I'd love to help. But don't expect much from me. :) – M.A.R. Sep 27 '15 at 21:37
  • As a side note, we probably need same kind of post regarding "point of view". Foreign language learners tend to mix different point of views because it's not clear to them which expressions go with some specific point of views. – user100487 Sep 29 '15 at 16:56
  • You said it about 'passive voice' and here i was talking about general topics, all topics including passive. The only difference was, you suggested a canonical post and I a structured section! Strange that it did not receive good response. I was all up for that with my user-friendly structure ready! So, yes! There should be such post and not for 'passive' but for all general topics! – Maulik V Oct 1 '15 at 12:41
  • The question asks for advice on when to use passive voice. IMO, that should be balanced with a general admonishment to avoid passive voice if possible; it's very easy to fall into, and typically very quickly makes your text less lively (yes, "active") and interesting. – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Oct 2 '15 at 20:21
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    @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam There are very good reasons to use the passive; when you want to foreground the patient of a verb rather than the agent; when you want to omit the agent, amongst others. I think a general admonishment is uncalled for, and unhelpful. Usage guidance including situations in which one might avoid or favour the passive would be of use. Your text is made uninteresting by your writing, of which passive voice is but one part. – jimsug Oct 3 '15 at 11:24
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    @MaulikV The thing you request in the other post ("English Guide for Basic Knowledge", as you called it) is better as tag info pages, because it's basic. If we treat "passive" as a trivial topic, it should go into its tag, as well, imho. Canonical posts, as our existing two demonstrate, allow longer, and hence wider and deeper discussion. Having said that, writing either tag info pages or canonical posts requires a lot of time and effort. – Damkerng T. Oct 3 '15 at 13:29
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    @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam Sorry but what you're suggesting is complete nonsense. To give any general advice to avoid the passive voice would be completely irresponsible. This site is about learning English, we shouldn't be teaching people bad English like that would cause. – curiousdannii Oct 4 '15 at 4:46
  • One thing we have to contend with is the fact that a great many people, even educated ones, have no real clue what the passive voice is or how to identify it, and will point out as being "passive" phrases that contain nothing but active verbs. Some people use it for anything that makes agency unclear, and some people just slap the label on anything they don't like. A good post should mention that yes, there are times when it's important to make agency clear, but that that isn't a matter of grammar, and shouldn't be confused with active or passive voice, which is. – hobbs Oct 14 '15 at 4:54

Since my post on perfect constructions has been cited in discussion of two very different notions of what a Canonical Post ought to be, I'd like to describe the purposes to which I saw mine being put when I wrote it.

(I don't suggest that the post in fact answers those purposes—on the contrary, its inadequacies become more and more evident the farther I recede from it. I've got to find the time to rewrite it, pretty much from the ground up. But I think the purposes themselves remain valid, and that's all I want to address here.)

I started writing the thing because I found myself answering question after question on the subject. Almost every question was distinct, almost every one raised a slightly different issue; few of the questions could honestly be closed as duplicates of others. But every answer I wrote required me to recount the same background, the same recitation of how the perfect is put together and how it works; and writing that every damn time got extremely tiresome.

My original purpose, then, was to put all the essential background in one place, where I could link to it and not have to repeat myself. If I took the time to get it right once I wouldn't have to worry with it any more: I could just answer the question at hand, and point to the relevant piece of the CP for the detailed explanation of why it was the answer—if the questioner cared.

And (for me at least) it has served this purpose. Now when I write an answer to a question involving the perfect I can simply say "It's a present tense (see [Link], §3.1)" or "That's not really a perfect (see [Link], §2.2) and proceed to answer the actual question posted, which in three cases out of four is something like "Why is this wrong?" or "How do I say this?"

It was never intended to be a Final Answer which would excuse closing every question about the perfect as a duplicate. On the contrary, it was intended to make it easier to give good answers by obviating the need to reinvent the wheel every time. As I wrote at the very top of the post:

This is a Canonical Post, intended as a reference and resource for both Questioners and Answerers.

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  • Yes, exactly and that's why it's good!!! +1 – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 2 '15 at 23:15
  • @Araucaria W e l l . . . it's why it might get good. (not a passive) – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 2 '15 at 23:17
  • There goes a hopeless perfectionist ... ! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 2 '15 at 23:25
  • @Araucaria No ... it's just not providing the background I need to answer some questions. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 2 '15 at 23:34
  • Ah, but the possible questions are as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 2 '15 at 23:35
  • @Araucaria Oh, I'm not trying to answer all the questions -- I'm just trying to put up enough fences to corral all the questions. "What we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise. -K.Burke – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 2 '15 at 23:40
  • That sounds far too admirable and reasonable to me. I'm going to have to look that reference up :) You may see me pottering around in a guinnessified state for a little bit, but I'm probably not going to make an awful lot of sense after I finish this sentence. I'm going to enter reading mode ... Have a good Friday evening! It's now Saturday here :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 2 '15 at 23:50
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    @Araucaria Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives. Prosit! – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 3 '15 at 0:05
  • @StoneyB That makes sense... I suppose I was thinking that the proposed topic was far simpler than your post had been, and that most questions probably could be answered in it. But perhaps I underestimate the complexity of the subject; several points I didn't consider have been raised in this thread! – WendiKidd Oct 3 '15 at 4:01
  • Sorry to repeat myself in two different parts of the comments, but I don't understand the reasoning behind having "canonical posts" on this site versus pointing to good external resources. Why keep reopening solved problems? – CynicallyNaive Oct 23 '15 at 1:17
  • @CynicallyNaive I wrote mine because I found no such external authority -- only a) partial treatments of the same sort that as often as not created our questioners' confusions and b) highly technical discussions which were unintelligible even to me until I'd read them three or four times. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 23 '15 at 2:04

I thoroughly endorse this proposal, but I think we need to remember that we've currently only got two Canonical Posts (because they're not that easy to rattle off.)

And the two we have got are very different. The original (StoneyB's magnum opus on use of the perfect) is very long - but it's dealing with a wide range of related usages, from several perspectives. But we probably shouldn't be closing many questions as duplicates of this one (there will still be issues not covered, or potential querents might have trouble understanding the finer nuances of what is covered).

The other one is a fairly straightforward dismissal of software grammar checkers. It's a lot shorter (though without wishing to be critical of Wendikidd's sterling effort, I think it's longer than it needs to be). And probably the main purpose of the post is so we can cite it in duplicate closevotes.

I think this third proposed Canonical Post requires another different format. StoneyB helpfully divided his post into half-a-dozen sections. Because there's no actual "question", he's used that slot for an introduction/index. I don't think "Use of passive voice" needs such exhaustive treatment, so I suggest it should be possible to fill the "question" slot with a concise summary of what the passive form actually is, with a suitable range of examples.

The only other thing needed is an explanation of why you might want to use passive voice. That could include distinct aspects (i.e. - separate "answer" sections) such as...

1: The "subject" is [potentially] unknown - (John was shot last night)
2: The "object" is more important in the overall context of the text (but this gets close to "Lit Crit")
3: Passive voice just sounds more formal and authoritative (effectively, "Style Advice")
4: (rant on overuse of the passive leading to dull uninspiring prose)
5: (rant on excessive TEFL preoccupation with converting Active => Passive)
etc., etc.

I feel if we can get this one right, a lot of current and future questions on the passive could be closed as duplicates.

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  • OK, but you've missed the all of the ten or so most important reasons for using the passive, and only your first reason is one that should be endorsed. Your second is criminal, but seeing as your earnest we won't take you out and stick you in stocks and throw rotten turnips at you :-) 3-5 are irrelevant triflings that would overtake the discussion at EL&U and aren't befitting of a site that is trying to help out language learners (this you know and feel too!). Wasn't it you who, a seasoned veteran of thinking about such things, recently ... (continued) – – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 2:11
  • ... pointed out on EL&U that this question here was not straightforwardly obvious even to native speakers and therefore shouldn't have been migrated over here. I think what that really showed is that the passive's actually not that straightforward or simple. Have a look at my post after I go through the first page on WK's list. The passive can be hard. You were right. I suspect it's your heightened understanding of grammar that's helped you understand that's a hard Q! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 2:15
  • I agree... Having a place to point people to is the main point of resources, of course, but being able to close a lot of questions by citing a link that already has the answer is a tool that saves a lot of answerers and cleaner-upers time ;) @Araucaria I think FF's list is intended to show the general idea of what such a post might look like, not to provide a required outline for the writer :) – WendiKidd Oct 3 '15 at 4:05
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    @Araucaria: As Wendikidd says, I didn't seriously intend to present a list or "reasons" that might actually constitute an answer - they're just examples to illustrate the kind of format/layout I had in mind. Having said that, I don't see what you find objectionable about the idea that passive is often justifiable on the grounds that it promotes the importance of the object rather than the subject. I'd expect every style guide to recognize such a trite observation (not that I spend much time poring over style guides! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '15 at 12:05
  • @FumbleFingers Ah, that because it's a common bit of misguidance given to students by teachers. For example how does the following text strike you? "I've been studying the Mona Lisa. In 1517 Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa." – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 12:52
  • @FumbleFingers Probably it sounds a bit stilted. It's the Mona Lisa appearing there at the end two times in a row. The problem with that is that we like to reserve the end bit there for new information. It's the end of the sentence that we reserve for the juicy stuff. The old stuff we prefer to put at the beginning. We can repair that text though. We can demote the Mona Lisa from the prominent position and put the new exciting important Leonardo da Vinci bits in the star position. How are we going to demote the Mona Lisa? ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 12:53
  • @FumbleFingers ... We're going to passivise that sentence, so that the new Subject links back to the previous one and the new exciting Da Vinci info gets the pole position: "I've been studying the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in 1597" – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 12:53
  • @FumbleFingers So apart from various reasons for not mentioning the subject, the main reason for using the passive is to put the old boring subject at the beginning of the sentence so that it links back to previous material, and thereby to promote the interesting stuff by letting it appear on the podium at the end of the sentence! Kind of the opposite of the advice given by (most) teachers ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 12:56
  • @Araucaria: You don't need to explain basic elements of style to me (it was a while ago, but my degree majored in Lit Crit). If you don't agree that one of the most obvious reasons to use the passive is to emphasize the action rather than the actor I doubt I can persuade you otherwise. I agree there are some obscure details, such as why The cat was sat on is okay, but probably not The cat was sat beside (don't answer that! - I know! :) But what learners need to know usually isn't that complex. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '15 at 13:10
  • btw - I think you misconstrue the significance of what you call "old boring stuff". Taken in full context, the "promoted" action is usually the focus of a more extended section of text - it's just that within an individual sentence we want to underline the fact that some new information relates to / flows from the central thing (the action) that's being expanded upon. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '15 at 13:15
  • @FumbleFingers Yes, that's exactly what using a short passive does, it demotes the Object to the subject position and gets rid of the Subejct. That's how it emphasises the action! 'Cuz that (the action) then appears at the end. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 13:15
  • @FumbleFingers Yes, I'm overdramatising within a sentence. The Subject normally represents the theme of whats going on, and so it's obviously central, important and of interest, I agree. What I'm getting at is that the end is usually the focal point of the sentence. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 13:17
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    @FumbleFingers I'd forgotten about the The cat was sat beside. That probably a good one for EL&U. Erm, yes, I think most questions are more straighforward (thankfully), but there's still such a range of different things once they actually start using things in the real world. So much different stuff can come up. Anyway, I'll stop boring you to death! A canonical Post is a great idea :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 3 '15 at 13:21
  • Yeah - it's dragging on a bit here. I'm going to assume we're in agreement that the "sat-beside cat" is an issue that would be more appropriate on ELU rather than ELL. It's one of those cases where almost all native speakers would be happier with a passivized cat that was sat upon rather than beside. Consequently (pragmatics aside! :) they'd be more accepting of sat-upon chocolate creams rather than confectionery that had been merely sat beside! (But they wouldn't necessarily know why.) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '15 at 13:38
  • @FumbleFingers The example that always occurs to me, prolly because I spent so much of my youth reading mysteries, is "This bed has been slept in." – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 5 '15 at 0:13

Short answer

  1. A canonical post on the passive is a good idea.
  2. A canonical post as a tool for enabling the closure of the majority of the large number of passive voice questions we get is a terrible idea.
  3. Only 425 questions on the passive so far? What is wrong with us?

We should be getting a better range of questions than this on the passive. There's obviously too much what does this word/phrase mean stuff encouraged on here at the expense of grammar and pronunciation. We need to turn this round.

A good canonical post on the passive would probably be as long and complex as StoneyB's canonical canonical post on the prefect in English. Maybe longer. The best thing about StoneyB's canonical post is that it is a long in-depth and well explained resource for learners. However, it is not concise. It isn't necessarily the easiest document for a learner to read. It could never be, and shouldn't be - if it's going to fulfill its role. Happily, the canonical post co-exists along-side well targeted responses to questions about the perfect - quite often written by Stoney himself. It hasn't turned into a page that questions get linked-to after being blindly closed.

I find it hard to express exactly how much I disagree with Wendi's assertion that 90% of the questions are low effort homework questions - if that is meant to mean that they are questions which if they'd been better developed wouldn't have ended up here on ELL. All due respect to Wendikidd - it's just that I deeply disagree. I've gone through the first page on that list, so 15 questions, and I haven't seen one that is even vaguely a duplicate of another. Indeed they cover such a breadth and range of issues, that I am actually staggered at how involved some of them are. Far from being useless for future readers, they seem to me to be the very bread and butter of what ELL should be about. They don't all show research effort and some of them could have been written better. But the content of the actual questions is exactly what a site like this should be aiming at.

In the post below, I explain a little bit about what kind of things the passive in English involves. I will then offer a dissection of the first fifteen questions on the linked-to list to show how complex and wide-ranging those questions in fact are. It's going to be a long post so I'll do it installments - especially as it's Friday, and I'm going to honour the centuries-old English tradition of finishing off the week with a drink with my colleagues in an ancient London hostelry. Here's the first installment then:

Full answer

First installment:

I agree with the sentiment of this question. However, I feel it is misguided. I think there should/could be a canonical post on passives. I don't think it should be there primarily as a resource for enabling us to close questions. There are thousands of books written on the passive. There are also hundreds of research papers written on it every month. It is a hugely complex area, covering all sorts of difficult things such as:

  • long passives
  • short passives
  • passives with DO as Subject
  • passives with IO as Subject
  • prepositional passives
  • passives with Subjects extracted from embedded subordinate clauses
  • passives with finite clauses as Subject
  • passives within subordinate clauses versus within main clauses
  • finite passives
  • non-finite passives
  • Subjectless non-finite passives
  • passives with raising verbs (for example modals)
  • passives with control verbs
  • the difference between syntactic functions and theta roles
  • Subject, versus Object, versus Predicative Complement, versus Goal Complement, versus Locative Complement

Hmmm, maybe I should stop here. No, let's go on for a little bit. After all, we're just beginning to start to get the syntax covered. We'll move onto semantics in a little while, then some discourse pragmatics, then linguistic constraints on information packaging (which is what passives are all about). I am sure there's some other big areas that need to be covered, but I can't afford to think about those right now, I'm just starting to make some inroads into the syntax that needs to be covered. Hold on a moment, where was I? Oh yes, there's also:

  • active voice clauses that can't be passivised
  • passive voice clauses with no active voice alternative
  • verbs which normally occur in passive voice
  • verbs which resist being used in passive voice
  • get-passives
  • ergative get-passives
  • causative get-passives
  • adjectival get-passives
  • have passives /causatives
  • passives versus pseudo-passives
  • passive versus adjective constructions
  • bare passives
  • so-called concealed passives (the car needs washing or even the car needs washed)
  • nouns with post-modifying passive participles
  • impersonal passives
  • the internal complement (the by phrase), omission and movement, for example fronting and stranding of the preposition.
  • -

OK. I'm going to be late for getting to the pub. I'll put a second installment in soon. I'm not going to bother to try and finish the syntax section, or even try to make a dent in the others. Suffice it to say that the sections on pragmatics and information packaging could be easily twice as long as what's been glanced at here. The next installment will be an investigation of the first page or two of our passive voice questions. Just for kicks I'm also going to add bounties to some of them which haven't had the attention they deserve as I go along.

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    I look forward to reading your CP -- in about six months. If you're lucky. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 2 '15 at 22:59
  • @StoneyB I ain't got no time to be doing one of those! I might just finish this post off some time over the weekend though. I think it's worth showing why those questions are all worthy in terms of the gristle they bring to the table for other learners. We'll see. Anyhow, after your canonical posts, I'm not going to try and live up to one of those!!!! And I'm supposedly meant to be doing a PhD, and teaching, and I've got a GF who hates SE ELL/U with a vengeance ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 2 '15 at 23:12
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    @Araucaria Hmm. Bad sign. Have you considered dumping her? – deadrat Oct 4 '15 at 2:20
  • @deadrat No one else would put up with me! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 4 '15 at 2:24
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    @Araucaria Ah, good point. Then just don't tell her about your post on ELU about adjectives and infinitival complements. – deadrat Oct 4 '15 at 2:52
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    There are lots of complexities sure, but there are also simple generalities. It probably would help to have a canonical question/answer which explains how to test whether a verb is transitive or not, which in 98% of the cases will tell you whether it can be passivised. – curiousdannii Oct 4 '15 at 4:48
  • I understand what you're saying completely; allow me to rephrase slightly and see if that makes a difference in your opinion? Of course nearly every topic is going to have many complexities. But in some cases (passive as the example) I think there could be a (relatively) short post that gives background and a basic understanding of the topic, and that might serve to either be a preface to avoid repeating oneself (as Stoney has mentioned) and in the case of very simple questions, could close them as duplicates. I don't mean to say in any way we never get a complex question on passive (contd) – WendiKidd Oct 5 '15 at 19:18
  • voice. Only that, if we are capable of constructing a post which informs the reader clearly and helpfully on a topic, we ought to create one, and then see how it measures up in practice: if even two questions are wholly answered by this post, we've saved 1 answerer's time (that they can spend answering another question). What do you think? – WendiKidd Oct 5 '15 at 19:22
  • @WendiKidd Yes, I don't disagree with that :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 6 '15 at 23:09

Yayy! Pitching in with some resources that I hope will be useful for learners.

1) https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/CCS_activevoice.html

From the link:

When to use passive voice

There are sometimes good reasons to use the passive voice. To emphasize the action rather than the actor

After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by the long-range planning committee. To keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage

The data processing department recently presented what proved to be a controversial proposal to expand its staff. After long debate, the proposal was endorsed by . . . . To be tactful by not naming the actor

The procedures were somehow misinterpreted. To describe a condition in which the actor is unknown or unimportant

Every year, thousands of people are diagnosed as having cancer. To create an authoritative tone

Visitors are not allowed after 9:00 p.m.

2) https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/01/

This is a handout explaining the difference between the two and describing when to use which. Note the sub topics given under the main topic on the left at the above link. There are 8 sub topics in all.

Awesome takeaway: The downloadable poster at this link https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/539/08/

3) http://www.towson.edu/ows/activepass.htm

Townson University's online course on English and Writing has a section on voice.

4) http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/activevoice/

University of Illinois has also put up some nice notes on voice.

Excerpt: The choice between using the active or passive voice in writing is a matter of style, not correctness. However, most handbooks recommend using active voice, which they describe as more natural, direct, lively, and succinct. The passive voice is considered wordy and weak (except when used in cases above).

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Ok. Following up on Mamta,

Start with a dictionary for the most basic of definitions.

Then, for a more definitive and detailed description (with more authority on the topic than I will have in my lifetime), go here:

Active voice

and polish that off with the follow-up:

Passive voice

(Note that I could not use 3 links. Too junior for that privilege!)

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