A MEMBER of Jose Carrillo’s Forum who goes by the user name Baklis asked me this tough question recently: “How does the perfect tense in the passive voice differ from the perfect tense in the active voice?”
Absolutely no one has ever asked me that question in the more than 13 years that I have been writing on English usage, and it’s probably because hardly anybody uses the perfect tenses in the passive voice owing to its rather complicated grammar mechanism. So before I can answer that question meaningfully, I’ll first have to define those two grammar terms, show how they are formed, and give examples of their usage.
In English, the perfect tenses denote events that have ended, are ending, or will end in time. In the present perfect tense, the action is completed with respect to the present at some indefinite time in the recent past, as in “We have just participated in a nationwide earthquake drill.” In the past perfect tense, a past action was completed with respect to another past action or event, as in “She had been to Stockholm before she visited her own hometown.” And in the future perfect tense, the future action will be completed with respect to another future action or event: “They will have raised the sunken boat by this weekend.”
All of the perfect-tense sentences I presented are in the active voice, which means that the subject of the sentence is the one doing the verb’s action. Active-voice sentences in the present perfect use the auxiliary verb “has” (singular) or “have” (plural) with the past participle of the verb, as in “My friend has taken a new job”; those in the past perfect use the auxiliary verb “had” with the past participle, as in “Bernadette had left for school when classes were suspended”; and those in the future perfect pair off the auxiliary verbs “will” and “have” with the past participle, as in “The engineer will have worked in North Borneo for 15 years when he retires.”
In contrast to active-voice sentences, passive-voice sentences are those in which the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the verb’s action. They give us the option to make the indirect object, direct object, or the act itself the subject of the statement. For example, the active-voice sentence “The dog chased the mouse” can take the passive-voice form “The mouse was chased by the dog.”
Having already clearly defined the basic parameters of the perfect tenses and of voice, we should now be able to tackle the passive-voice equivalents of the three basic perfect tenses.
In the passive voice, the present perfect tense uses the form “has/have” + “been” + the past participle of the verb, as in “The woman has been duped into becoming a drug mule”; the past-perfect tense uses the form “had” + “been” + the past participle, as in “The riverside dwellers had been informed about the likely flooding before the heavy rains came”; and the future-perfect tense uses the form “will have” + “been” + past participle of verb, as in “By this time next year all my high school batch mates will have been awarded their college degrees.”
So from the discussions that we have just had, it should now be clear how the perfect tense in the passive voice differs from the perfect tense in the active voice. It’s simply that in a perfect tense sentence in the active voice, the grammatical subject is the one doing the action of the verb; while in a perfect tense sentence in the passive voice, the grammatical subject of the verb is typically the recipient or the object of the verb’s action. This is regardless of whether the sentence is in the present perfect, past perfect, or future perfect tense.
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