My students have been taught that a verb is in the  passive voice  whenever a form of the verb  to be  appears. They have also been taught that it is never to be used. They are wrong on both counts.

Word of the Day I’ll speak about the use of the passive voice later. For now, let’s define what we mean by voice. Consider these three sentences:

Superman was stopped by Lex Luthor and a very large dose of kryptonite.
Superman stopped the train with one hand tied behind his back.
“I wish you wouldn’t fly away so fast!” said Lois. Superman stopped.

Voice  denotes  the relationship between the subject and the verb.  Is the subject performing the action of the verb? Then that verb is in the  active voice.  Is the subject “performing” the state of being named by the verb? For example: “Superman is a fink.” Superman is performing the being-a-fink. That verb  is  is in the active voice. But if the subject is the sufferer of the action named by the verb, as in the first sentence above—the kryptonic Lex is stopping Superman, not the other way around—then the verb is in the  passive voice,  literally the  suffering-the-action voice.  In English, we form the passive voice by using a form of the verb  be,  followed by the past participle, but that’s just what we happen to do. We use forms of  be  all the time, without forming the passive voice. “Superman is a fink.” “Superman is picking that old man’s pocket.” “Superman has never been here.” All those are in the  active voice.  Other languages, like Latin and Greek, form the passive voice without the verb  be  at all. The one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other.

The third example above is considered  active voice  in English, but in Greek it would be cast in the  middle voice,  between active and passive. Superman is doing the stopping, sure; but he is also suffering the stopping. He is stopping himself. The Greeks “heard” a difference there, and employed a different form of the verb. So do speakers of many other languages. It’s a nice tool to have, that middle voice.

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