What's the difference between tense and voice in English?

9 September 2018

Many people confuse tense with active and passive voice. This is because the way we construct a passive voice sentence sometimes makes it appear to be in the past tense. But tense and voice actually have two different purposes.

What is the purpose of tense?

Tense relates to time – past, present or future. We change the verb to tell the listener or reader when an action happens. When we refer to something that has happened in the past, we usually add –ed to the verb.

What is the purpose of active and passive voice?

Active and passive voice refers to a particular way we order words in a sentence. In active voice, the subject (the person or thing causing the action) ‘directs’ the action to happen.  In passive voice, the order of the words is reversed and the subject ‘receives’ the action. Sometimes the subject is omitted altogether in passive voice sentences.

We may choose to write an active or passive voice sentence in the present, past or future.

Tense

Active voice

Passive voice

Present

The residents [subject] use [verb] recycled water [object].

Recycled water is used by the residents.

Recycled water is used. [Subject is omitted]

Past

The residents [subject] used [verb] recycled water [object].

Recycled water was used by the residents.

Recycled water was used. [Subject is omitted]

Future

The residents [subject] will use [verb] recycled water [object].

Recycled water will be used by the residents.

Recycled water will be used. [Subject is omitted]

Notice how passive voice is written by using a form of the verb ‘to be’ (e.g. is, was, will) and adding -ed to the verb. This may trick you into thinking a sentence is in past tense rather than passive voice.  

Does your team understand the difference between active and passive voice? Ask us about our customised in-house training programs. Call Concise Writing Consultancy on 02 9238 6638.

 

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