Participles: Passive vs. Active Voice
- February 10, 2017
- Posted by: gmatdudes
- Category: Strategies and Tips
By Matthew Anderson
Participles can be modifiers that describe other words in the sentence. Participles can be particularly confusing, as they look quite similar to verbs. A present participle that ends in -ing (walking) can be confused with a present progressive verb (I am walking). A past participle that ends in -ed (recorded) can be confused with a past simple verb (I recorded) or other verb tenses that include a past participle (Ex. I have recorded).
Another confusing thing about participles is their names. We could incorrectly assume that present participles always happen in the present and past participles always happen in the past. However, as participles are not verbs, they do not have a tense.
Don’t assume present participles are present and past participles are past
Although participles are not verbs, they are built from a verb root because they describe an action.
Example: Attacking the thieves, Tom screamed.
In this example, Tom is the subject and screamed is the verb. The present participle “attacking” is not a verb, but it describes another action that Tom also does.
Notice that the sentence occurs in the past (Tom screamed). Nevertheless, it uses a present participle, proving that a present participle has nothing to do with the present tense when used as a modifier.
What is Active Voice and what is Passive Voice?
Then how do you know whether to use a present participle or a past participle in your sentence? The decision is made based on who is performing the action described in the participle. This idea requires us to review the difference between active and passive voice.
When the subject performs the action, we call that active voice.
Example: Tom hits the ball.
The subject “Tom,” performs the action, “hits.”
When the subject receives the action, we call that passive voice.
Example: Tom is hit by the ball.
The subject “Tom,” received the action, “hit.” The object, “the ball,” is the one that performs the action in this sentence. When conjugating a verb, the passive voice requires the helping verb “to be” plus the past participle (is hit).
Present Participles are Active and Past Participles are Passive
As a participle is still describing an action, it does still need to describe an action that is either active or passive. The type of participle tells you the voice of that action.
Look at these two examples:
Example 1: Attacking the thieves, Tom screamed. (Tom is performing the action of attacking. Therefore, we use the present participle.)
Example 2: Attacked by the thieves, Tom screamed. (Tom is receiving the action of attacking. Therefore, we use the past participle.
In these two examples, the context makes it very obvious which participle is required. However, some sentences require a bit more effort.
Example: Stretched as far wide as the tree is tall, the roots of a tree extend with age. (INCORRECT)
What’s wrong with this example? It sounds fine, right? Well, don’t trust your ear. Ask the question: Do the roots stretch (active) or are they stretched by someone/something else (passive)? In this case the more appropriate word would be “stretching,” a present participle.
Perhaps it would be better to call present participles “active participles,” and call past participles “passive participles”? An interesting proposition, but not likely to catch on. For now, we’ll have to rely on recognizing the difference in how they are used.