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What is a Passive Voice Sentence?

Active & Passive voice sentences The topic of passive sentences naturally leads onto participles. As such the next two post form a unit and should be read together.

Now so far on this blog, we have dealt only with active sentences – where subject performs an action on some target object.

With passive sentences (sometimes called the passive voice) the subject of the sentence gets something done to them!







The vet
the horse

The horse
was shot
by the vet

Notice the pairs of terms:  subject - object and agent – patient. In active sentences the meanings of subject - object and agent - patient are aligned and indeed many grammar guides use them interchangeably. However, it is only with passive sentences that the difference becomes clear. The agent is always the entity which acts. The target/patient is the entity acted upon. It's actually a different notion from the grammatical terms subject and object.

A ‘subject’ is a term relating to the syntax of the verb (that to which the verb agrees). In the passive sentence above, the subject of the verb is ‘the horse’!  While, the agent of the action, in both instances this is ‘the vet’.

Notice how the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence while the agent remains the same in both. Because of this, it often better to adopt the agent - patient terminology when dealing with passive sentences in order to avoid any confusion. In a passive sentence the agent is relegated to a prepositional phrase (instrumental), and its inclusion is optional.

Note also that the verb ‘shot’ is actually a past participle and accompanied by an auxiliary verb ‘was’ - the past form of ‘to be’. The inclusion of an auxiliary verb is a distinguishing feature of passive sentences in English.
Here's a video tutorial exploring:

English: Active & Passive Voice Rules :Language Basics

What is the passive voice? This tutorial looks at how English uses the passive voice and analyses the structure of active and passive sentences. It covers grammatical terms like subject & object as we...

In Pali, the subject of a passive verb (i.e. the patient of the action), is denoted by the nominative case, and any agent is in instrumental (or sometime genitive). The auxiliary often has to be added by the translator.
However, the verb can be either:
So there's two ways of forming a passive sentence in Pali!



past part.


without a stick
without a knife
the elephant
(was) trained
by the great sage
without a stick or knife, the elephant (was) trained by the great sage

 * the negation (a-) prefixed to an instrumental can be rendered ‘without’ (with-no).

Passive indicative stems in Pali 

Though not frequent, Pali has a class of verbs that are specifically passive in meaning. They are created from verb roots or the present stem by adding the suffix:
  •  –ya + personal endings. 
I think all tense endings can be applied - present endings shown below.
Present tense endings

3rd person
2nd person
1st person

The ‘y’ of the ‘-ya’ is often assimilated and disappears, sometimes resulting in a consonant in the root being doubled. Eg.
 labha +ya +ti = labbhati. 
As such they can be hard to spot. I’ll post more detail of how verbs are inflected and the different stems in later post, but for now I include some information to help identify the words.

Like with English the passive use of verbs other than participles tends to express the ‘simple’ aspect, either present, past or future.

When translating passive Pali verbs, because in English the passive is always expressed by an auxiliary + past participle, this general guide can be followed where the auxiliary expresses the required tense.
  • passive verb in present: 'is/are' + past participle
  • passive verb in past: 'was/were' + past participle
  • passive verb in future: 'will be' + past participle
Some examples:
pres, pass

3rd person

with difficulty
to be obtained
is obtained with difficulty


pres, pass

3rd person

sun & moon
(are) evident
the sun & moon are not evident

paññāyissati ?
intg pron



fut, pass

3rd pers

(of) which
arising, birth
will be evident
of which phenomena will arising be evident?

The patient/subject of the passive verb is always in nominative!
The Passive Voice in Pali :Learn Pali Language #26These video tutorials go into some more detail.

Passive Voice in Pāli | Learn Pali Language #26

In this second part to the passive voice, we look at two ways of creating the passive voice in a Pali sentence. We see how passive indicative verbs are formed and this is contrasted with the use of pa...

Tense, Aspect & mood vs Voice

I find much of the terminology around passive sentences and verb tense, mood, & aspects barely comprehensible and confusing. So I will spend some time and explain these terms in English grammar. There is also an excellent article on English verb forms here.

Verb principal parts

As a carry-over from Latin, an English verb can can be be said to have 4 principal forms : the simple, the past and the participles.  Consider the verbs 'to write' & ‘to go’:
simple present
simple past
present participle
past participle
Besides the simple present and past there are the participle forms. In English, there are two types of participle traditionally called the present participle (forms such as going, singing and raising) and the past participle (forms such as gone, sung and raised).  Participles are a form of verb that requires another verb (an auxiliary) to fully express meaning; compare: 'I go', 'I went',   with   'I have gone' &  'I am going'..

Verb Tense, Aspect & Mood/Mode 

In English grammar, the word tense usually refers to a combination of both time period and aspect - and also sometimes mood. 
  • The verb tense indicates the time at which the action of the verb takes place – past, present or future.
  • The aspect of a verb tells us the degree to which it is completed. There are continuous (also called progressive or imperfect) aspects that tell us the action is in progress; there are perfect aspects that tell us the action is complete and of continuing relevance, and there are simple aspects that are just that – simple.
  • Verb mood or mode  is the purpose of the sentence in which a verb is used. In Pali, the indicative mood is used to make a statement. The optative mood expresses desires or wishes. And the conditional mood (also subjunctive) is for sentences that pose potential or hypothetical scenarios  While the imperative expresses commands and requests - I won’t include it here. 
Pali like many Proto-Indo-European languages makes no division between tense and mode and many guides refer to them as the same thing.

Tenses & modes

will go
would go
may go
Progressive (imperfect)
am/is/are going
was/were going
will be going
would be going
may be going
have/has gone
had gone
will have gone
would have gone
may have gone
have/has been going
had been going
will have been going
would have
been going
may have
been going
And so we get terms like present progressive 'I am going', future perfect-progressive 'I will have been going' etc. The past perfect 'I had gone' is sometimes called the pluperfect. I include all this because the grammar guides are packed with this jargon, often mixing grammatical terms of English with those of Latin.

English: 12 Tenses: Time vs Aspect :Language Basics

In this tutorial, we look at the 12 tenses in English as combinations of place in Time vs Aspect or completion. There are with explanations including time-lines and formulas. 

Here’s an apps to conjugate English verbs.

Now notice how the various tense - aspect combinations beyond the simple present and past are formed by
  • perfect: auxiliary + past participle,
  • progressive: auxiliary + present participle,
Though the participles are called past and present participles they are employed to express all the tenses!

Some authors refer to participles as future perfect etc. but really I think in English it is the combination of auxiliary + verb/participle that creates the tense-aspect.

Tense vs Passive constructions

Now just to make this all this a bit more confusing; all the tense-aspect combinations expressed above can be cast into the passive voice!

In English this is done by making the patient into the subject and using a past participle with an auxiliary verb. You can tell if a sentence is in passive voice by adding an agent: by me; at the end. If the sentence still makes sense, it's passive.
present simple
I write a blog.
A blog is written (by me).
present continuous
I am writing a blog.
A blog is being written (by me).
past simple
I wrote a blog.
A blog was written (by me).
past continuous
I was writing a blog.
A blog was being written (by me).
present perfect
I have written a blog.
A blog has been written (by me).
pres. perf. continuous
I have been writing a blog.
A blog has been being written (by me).
past perfect
I had written a blog.
A blog had been written (by me).
future simple
I will write a blog.
A blog will be written (by me).
future perfect
I will have written a blog.
A blog will have been written (by me).
Notice how the passive is always expressed in English by:
passive:       auxiliaries + past participle.

Participles often get labelled as ‘active’ and ‘passive’ and this relates to the form of the participle - but not necessarily to the voice of the sentence!

However with Pali participles and even verbs can be made passive due to their form alone.

So in the next post we'll look at Participles in Pali.

More posts


Bella Dawson said…
Wonderful post. Detailed explanation with examples. English Grammar a topic to look into.

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