An Introduction to Latin Passive Voice Verbs

By John Garger

Both Latin and English employ the passive voice to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. Latin indicates the passive voice of a verb through inflection. Learn the basics of Latin's passive voice verbs.

Both English and Latin employ Passive Voice verbs to indicate the relationship between a verb and its subject. The Passive Voice indicates when someone or something does something to the subject of a sentence. This is in contrast to the active voice which indicates what the subject is or is doing. The distinction may be subtle but it is monumentally important to recognize both forms in English and Latin. This is especially important for Latin students who may completely change the meaning of a written or spoken sentence by failing to use or recognize the appropriate voice of a verb.

The English Passive Voice

The English Passive Voice is used to indicate when someone or something does an action to the subject of a sentence. In English, the Passive Voice is formed with the auxiliary verb “to be" plus the past participle form of the verb. For example:

The book is given to John by Mary

Notice that the subject of the sentence (book) is having something done to it (is given) by someone (Mary). “John" is used in the sentence simply to indicate to whom the book was given. To indicate that the action takes place at another time, the auxiliary verb “to be" must be conjugated into its appropriate form. For example:

The book was given to John by Mary.

The book will be given to John by Mary.

Notice two things here: First, the past participle (given) form of the verb did not change from sentence to sentence even though the action takes place at different times in each sentence. Second, the auxiliary verb did change to indicate the time at which the action takes place (is given, was given, and will be given).

The Latin Passive Voice

The Latin Passive Voice functions similarly to English. However, since Latin is an inflected language, the verb ending changes to indicate when the action takes place. For example:

Liber Caesari a regina donatur.

A book is given to Caesar by the queen.

Notice that the subject of the sentence (book) is having something done to it (is given) by someone (queen). “Caesar" is used in the sentence to indicate to whom the book was given. As a side note, the phrase “a regina" is the ablative of agent, a construction often used with the passive voice. When the doer of the action of a passive voice sentence is an object, the ablative of means or instrument is used instead.

Like English, Latin Passive Voice verbs can take place in any of the available six tenses. For example:

Liber Caesari a regina donabatur. (Imperfect Tense)

A book was being given to Caesar by the queen.

Liber Caesari a regina donabitur. (Future Tense)

A book will be given to Caesar by the queen.

and so on.

One area that gives Latin students trouble in forming Passive Voice verbs is found in the formation of the Perfect Tense system. Here, auxiliary verbs are used to indicate the person and number of the verb. For example:

Liber Caesari a regina donatus est. (Perfect Tense)

The book was given to Caesar by the queen.

Liber Caesari a regina donatus erat. (Pluperfect Tense)

The book had been given to Caesar by the queen.

Liber Caesari a regina donatus erit. (Future Perfect Tense)

The book will have been given to Caesar by the queen.

Notice in the first sentence that the verb phrase “donatus est" is used to indicate the English verb phrase “was given." For the first time, Latin students are introduced to the concept of using multiple words to form a verb. Also, this is one of the few times when Latin and English share a common construction. Remember, however, that this only occurs in the passive voice and only for the perfect tense system.

Conclusion

The Passive Voice functions similarly in English and Latin. To form Latin Passive Voice verbs for the present, imperfect, and future tenses, new endings must be memorized. Luckily, these endings form patterns like their active voice counterparts so no new constructions are necessary. However, the perfect tense system made up of the prefect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses employ an auxiliary verb similar to English. This auxiliary verb is based on the verb “sum" which may be translated as “to be". Appropriately, different forms of the verb (e.g. sum, eram, ero) are used depending on the tense intended. These forms are already familiar to Latin students by the time they reach Passive Voice verbs in their studies. This auxiliary verb form makes it easy for students to recognize the Passive Voice of the perfect tense system.