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Active vs. Passive Meaning

October 7, 2021

It is often assumed that the passive voice version of an active sentence has exactly the same meaning as the active version. Closer examination suggests otherwise.

“John kicked the ball” means the same thing as “The ball was kicked by John.”

But consider the following.

If the subject of any sentence is the topic of the sentence and the predicate is the commentary on or an assertion about or a limitation on the subject, then perhaps there can be quite pronounced differences between the active and the passive forms.


“Beavers build dams.” What do beavers do? They build dams. (True.)

“Dams are built by beavers.” Who builds dams? Dams are built by beavers. (False.)

“Ants carry grubs.” (True.)

“Grubs are carried by ants.” (False. Other predators also carry grubs.)