Understanding Passive Voice

English forms the passive voice by pairing a form of the verb “to be” with the past participle of a verb; for example, “you were seen,” “they will have been taken,” et cetera. Latin's approach to forming passive voice is almost as easy.

There are two entirely different ways to form passive voice in Latin: one for the present system and one for the perfect system.

Passive Voice in the Present System

For the tenses of the present system (the present, imperfect, and future), a special set of personal endings is used. The endings you have learned were all for active voice. These passive personal endings appear in their place.

Table 14-1 Active and Passive Personal Endings






















As you can see, they are quite distinctive and you should have no trouble recognizing them. While the r may quickly alert you to a verb being in passive voice, there are some alterations to stem vowels and tense indicators that occur.

There is an alternate form for the second person singular passive personal ending: -re; for example, Cur patientiā meā abute re? (“Why do you abuse my patience?”) instead of Cur patientiā mea-abute ris? The ending -ris, however, is far more common.

Table 14-2 Present Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice Across the Conjugations

The most striking oddity of conjugation in the present passive occurs in the second person singular. First and second conjugation verbs behave as you would expect, but in third conjugation you find an -e- where you would expect an -i-. Read down the paradigm for agī, and pay attention to the vowel pattern between the verb base (ag-) and the personal endings: o, e, i, i, i, u. You will see this vowel pattern again. This appearance of an e instead of i can be troublesome in that it makes the form look like future tense.

What is a paradigm?

Broadly speaking, a paradigm is the perfect example of a framework. In grammar, a paradigm is a chart showing a word in all its forms.

Table 14-3 Imperfect Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice Across the Conjugations

Just as the imperfect tense offered regular, predictable forms for the active voice, it also does so in the passive voice.

The passive voice forms for the imperfect subjunctive are also predictable. Rather than have the infinitive with active voice personal endings, you have the infinitive with passive personal endings. So agerem, agerē s, ageret, et cetera, become agerer, agerē ris, agerē tur, and so forth.

Table 14-4 Future Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice Across the Conjugations

As you recall, for active voice there are two different ways to form future tense, depending on the conjugation to which a verb belongs. First and second conjugation verbs follow a -bī, -bi-, -bu- pattern. Third and fourth conjugation verbs use “an a with five e's.” These two different approaches to forming future tense are also present in passive voice. All the forms show the predictable exchange of passive for active personal endings with one exception. In the second person singular for first and second conjugation verbs, the tense indicator changes slightly — the active form -bis becomes -beris. Once again, read the paradigm for amī vertically and you will notice the same unusual vowel pattern you saw previously in the present tense of third conjugation verbs: o, e, i, i, i, u.

Apart from ferō, ferre, all the irregular verbs you recently learned are intransitive, so you don't need to worry about passive voice forms for them. As for ferō, it is only irregular in the present tense: ferō, ferris, fertur, ferimur, feriminī , feruntur.

Passive Voice in the Perfect System

Passive voice in the perfect system is unlike anything you have seen Latin verbs do so far. In fact, Latin's approach to putting the perfect system tenses in passive voice is remarkably similar to English. Rather than relying on a special set of personal endings, Latin uses forms of the verb sum, not as endings, but in conjunction with a participle. Before examining the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses in passive voice, you need to know a little about participles. (Participles will be dealt with in Chapter 15 extensively.)

First and foremost, participles are verbal adjectives. They are verbal in that they are made from verbs and have tense and voice. They are adjectives in that they modify nouns. Take a look at these examples.

“The boy broke the window.” “Broke” is the past tense, active voice of the verb “to break.”

“The window was broken.” “Was broken” is the past tense, passive voice of the verb “to break.”

“A bird flew in the broken window.” “Broken” is an adjective simply describing the window.

The participle “broken” in the last example (Latin fractus, -a, -um from the fourth principal part of the verb frangī , frangere, frē , fractum) is perfect and passive. As a perfect participle, it shows something that happened before the main verb. (The bird couldn't have flown “in the broken window” unless the breaking had happened first!) As a passive participle, whatever word it modifies passively received the action; it didn't actively do anything.

In the second example sentence above, the passive verb “was broken” illustrates how English uses its past participle with a form of the verb “to be” to form passive voice. Latin uses the same approach. A translation of that second example sentence into Latin would be: Fenestra fracta est. You know that in Latin adjectives agree with their nouns in gender, case, and number. You shouldn't be surprised, then, to see that the perfect passive participle fractus, -a, -um is feminine nominative singular, since the word it modifies (fenestra) is feminine nominative singular.

As you may recall, all perfect system tenses are conjugated the same way regardless of their conjugation. This rule is also true in passive voice. That being the case, one passive voice example for each perfect system tense will suffice.

Table 14-5 Perfect Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice of agō , agere, ē , actum



actus (-a, -um) sum

I was driven

actus (-a, -um) es

you were driven

actus (-a, -um) est

he (she, it) was driven

actī (-ae, -a) sumus

we were driven

actī (-ae, -a) estis

you were driven

actī (-ae, -a) sunt

they were driven

The perfect passive is formed with the perfect passive participle and the present tense of the verb sum. Don't forget that participles are adjectives, and true to their adjectival nature agree with the subject in gender, case, and number. With mulier as the subject, you would see acta est for a verb because mulier is feminine singular. If it were more than one woman (mulierē s), the verb would be actae sunt (i.e., feminine plural).

Because the perfect passive uses the present tense of sum with a participle, you may be tempted to translate it as present tense. Remember, the perfect tense shows a single completed action in past time, so when you find est, for example, you should say “was.”

Table 14-6 Pluperfect Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice of agō , agere, ē gi, actum



actus (-a, -um) eram

I had been driven

actus (-a, -um) erā s

you had been driven

actus (-a, -um) erat

he (she, it) had been driven

actī (-ae, -a) erā mus

we had been driven

actī (-ae, -a) erā tis

you had been driven

actī (-ae, -a) erant

they had been driven

The pluperfect passive is formed with the perfect passive participle of a verb plus the imperfect of sum. Just as all pluperfect active forms are always translated “had ____,” so are pluperfect passive forms. If you had learned the tense indicator -era- to recognize the pluperfect active, you're in luck — here it is again!

The pluperfect subjunctive passive is made following the same rules. The only difference — and what makes it subjunctive — is that the imperfect subjunctive of sum (essem, essē s, esset, etc.) is used with the participle instead of the imperfect indicative.

Table 14-7 Future Perfect Tense, Indicative Mood, Passive Voice of agō , agere, ē gi, actum



actus (-a, -um) erō

I will have been driven

actus (-a, -um) eris

you will have been driven

actus (-a, -um) erit

he (she, it) will have been driven

actī (-ae, -a) erimus

we will have been driven

actī (-ae, -a) eritis

you will have been driven

actī (-ae, -a) erunt

they will have been driven

The future perfect passive quite predictably uses the future tense of sum with the perfect passive participle.

The Present Infinitive Passive

You have known the second principal part of a verb as the infinitive for quite a while now. What you have not been told is that it is the present infinitive active. What this means, of course, is that there are other infinitives … other tenses, other voices. You will read about the other infinitive tenses in Chapter 17. For the moment, let's focus on voice.

English has passive infinitives as well; for example, “to break”/“to be broken,” “to love”/“to be loved,” “to write”/“to be written.” Once again, English uses a past participle with a form of the verb “to be.” Latin, on the other hand, has special endings for passive present infinitives.

Table 14-8 Active and Passive Present Infinitives





amā re (to love)

amā (to be loved)


monē re (to warn)

monē (to be warned)


mittere (to send)

mittī (to be sent)

Third -iō

iacere (to throw)

iacī(to be thrown)


sentī re (to perceive)

sentī (to be perceived)

The basic pattern for changing active infinitives to passive voice is to change the short e at the end of the active ending to a long ī. The exception to this rule is for third conjugation verbs. For them, since the active infinitive is two short e's (separated by an r), the entire ending is changed to a long ī. This is also one of the few instances when third conjugation -iī verbs behave like regular third conjugation verbs.

Because the present infinitive passive ending for third conjugation verbs is a long ī , it can be very easily confused with the first person singular perfect indicative active. For example, capī(“to be taken”) versus (“I took”). The best way to tell them apart is by the verb stem. A present infinitive will have the present stem (cap-), and the perfect tense will have the perfect stem ( p-).

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