I’ve noticed confusion over two different grammatical terms: past tense and passive voice. They may seem similar, but they aren’t.
You may remember the terms past tense and passive voice from English classes you took many years ago.
If you remember them correctly, you know that they are two very different things. But I heard a recent conversation that tells me not everyone realizes the difference.
Each is important to our language, but for different reasons.
Let’s examine the two, shall we?
The term past tense refers to a form of verbs that expresses action that has already happened. Consider these examples:
- Terry writes whenever he can spare a few minutes.
- Terry wrote his first novel while he was in college.
In the first, the verb writes is in present tense, meaning it is a form of the verb that indicates current action (or hypothetically current) action. Terry may be writing this very second. Or, the next time he has a few moments of free time, you can bet he will be writing.
The second sentence, however, uses the past tense form of the verb write. It indicates that Terry completed his first novel. We don’t know how long ago Terry was in college, but because it says wrote, the past tense form of write, we know the novel is already finished.
Passive voice, on the other hand, involves how a sentence is structured. Remember back to your earliest English classes when you learned about subjects and verbs?
The sentences we first learned about were almost always in active voice. Here’s an example:
- Robert read the book.
The subject, Robert, took an action — he read — against an object, the book. When the subject of the sentence acts, that’s active voice.
Passive voice rearranges the order of the sentence so that the object of the action is acted upon:
- The book was read by Robert.
The object of the verb, the book, was the target of the action, reading.
In both of these examples, one active voice and the other passive voice, both verbs are in past tense. If I wanted to write the two sentences with a present tense verb form, it might look like this:
- ACTIVE VOICE: Robert reads the book.
- PASSIVE VOICE: The book is being read by Robert.
Both verbs are taking a form indicating the action is happening now. But the voice determines whether someone or something is performing an action or whether an action is being performed upon something.
You can write a sentence in active voice with a past tense verb. You can write a passive voice sentence with a verb taking on a present tense form.
Tense refers to the form of the verb and voice refers to the structure of the action.
They’re definitely not the same thing.