Passive Voice in English


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Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence DOES the action:

  • Jake wrote a letter.
    subject / verb / object

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon:

  • A letter was written (by Jake).
    subject / verb

Notice that the object of the active sentence (letter) became the subject of the passive sentence. If we want, we can include “by Jake” to say who did the action.

We do not include “by…” when:

  • The doer of the action is unknown:
    The money was stolen.
  • The doer of the action is “people in general”:
    Black cats are believed to bring bad luck.
  • The doer of the action is completely unimportant:
    This bridge was built in 1889. (probably by a construction company)

(Click here for more explanation and examples).

The passive voice is formed by a form of the verb TO BE + past participle of the main verb. 

The form of the verb “to be” is the same as the form of the original main verb:

Structure of the passive voice

Here’s how to form the passive voice for each verb tense in English.

Tense Active / Passive When to use it?
Simple Present Factory workers test the products. General procedures & processes; general thoughts & opinions
The products are tested.
Simple past An interior design company renovated our facilities last month. Actions completed at a specific time in the past.
Our facilities were renovated last month.
Simple future Everyone will exchange gifts at Christmas.
The company is going to implement the policy next month.
Actions to be completed in the future
Gifts will be exchanged at Christmas.
The policy is going to be implemented next month.
Present continuous Teachers are using the new book
in their classrooms.
Actions currently in progress
The new book is being used in classrooms.
Past continuous I spoke up when I saw that my manager was ignoring the safety regulations. Actions in progress at a time in the past
I spoke up when I saw that the safety regulations were being ignored.
Present perfect Somebody has eaten the last piece of cake. Actions completed at an unspecified time in the past.
The last piece of cake has been eaten.
Past perfect I discovered that someone had copied my brilliant idea. An action that happened before another action in the past.
I discovered that my brilliant idea had been copied.
Future perfect The store will have delivered the furniture by Friday. An action that will happen before a date in the future
The furniture will have been delivered by Friday.

 

Note that the form of the verb “to be” is singular or plural depending on the new subject of the sentence:

Teachers are using the new book in their classrooms.
(teachers = plural, so we use “are”)

The new book is being used in classrooms.
(the new book = singular, so we use “is”)

My manager was ignoring the safety regulations.
(my manager = singular, so we use “was”)

The safety regulations were being ignored.
(regulations = plural, so we use “were”)

Modal Verbs + Passive Voice

We can also add modal verbs to passive voice structures – typically:

the present (modal + be + past participle)
To talk about things in the present or future

the present perfect (modal + have been + past participle)
To talk about things in the past

Possibility:

  • Present: This recipe can be made with margarine instead of butter.
  • Past: He’s very upset. He might have been fired from his job.
  • Past: That was very dangerous. You could have been killed!

Impossibility:

  • Present: Crops can’t be grown here because the soil is too rocky.
  • Past: The work couldn’t have been finished in a day. It was at least a week’s worth of work.

Permission:

  • Positive: Photos may be taken during the performance.
  • Negative: Cell phones may not be used in the classroom.

Requirement:

  • Positive: The shipment must be delivered before the deadline.
  • Negative: These samples must not be exposed to contamination.

Advice:

  • Present: Something should be done about the problem.
  • Past: Something should have been done about the problem a long time ago.
  • Present: Criminals ought to be punished.
    (we don’t usually use “ought to have been” in the past; we prefer “should have been”)

When can we use the passive voice?

Some teachers and writers say that the passive voice should always be avoided, but this is not true. Of course it is not good to use the passive voice too much, but it is perfectly acceptable to use it – especially in these four situations:

  1. Use the passive voice when we don’t know who did the action

A laptop was stolen from the classroom.

Three people have been killed in the park. Police are looking for clues to the identity of the murderer.

  1. Use the passive voice when the person who does the action is “people in general”

Tino’s is considered the city’s best pizzeria.

Chinese is seen as a very difficult language to learn.

It was once believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

  1. Use the passive voice when the person who does the action is obvious or unimportant

She is being treated for cancer.
(by doctors and nurses, obviously)

Bill Clinton was elected president in 1993.
(by the country’s population, obviously)

All articles are proofread before publication.
(who proofreads them is not important… probably a team of editors)

  1. Use the passive voice when we want to give MORE emphasis to the receiver of the action than to the doer

Sometimes we do want to mention who did the action, because it is interesting or important in some way… but we still want to keep the primary focus of attention on the object of the action:

The Taj Mahal was built by the emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife.
(we are learning primarily about the Taj Mahal, so we keep the attention on it)

My mother is being treated for cancer by one of the best doctors in the country.
(the most important person in this sentence is my mother, not the doctor)

This software has been used by more than 50,000 small businesses.
(we want to emphasize how great the software is; the small businesses are a secondary detail)

When can’t we use the passive voice?

We can’t use the passive voice with intransitive verbs (verbs that have no object):

He fixed the clock.
(fixed = transitive; the clock = the object)
The clock was fixed.

He laughed.
They‘re coming over.
An accident has happened.
(laugh, come, happen = intransitive. There are no objects; therefore there is no possibility of making these sentences into the passive voice)

Can we use the passive voice with state verbs?

With state verbs, some of them can be used in the passive voice and others cannot.

Verbs that can be used in the passive voice include need, know, include, involve, love, hate, see, hear, feel.

We need new tools.
New tools are needed.

Everyone in the country knows her name.
Her name is known throughout the country.

The price includes tax.
Tax is included in the price.

This job involves manual labor.
Manual labor is involved in this job.

People love/hate the band’s music.
The band’s music is loved/hated.

People often see birds in the forest.
Birds are often seen in the forest.

Verbs that cannot be used in the passive voice include have (for possession), belong to, lack, resemble, appear, seem, look, be.

I have a cat.
A cat is had by me.

The team lacked a leader.
A leader was lacked by the team.

That cloud resembles a dragon.
A dragon is resembled by that cloud.

This task seems difficult.
(no passive sentence is possible)

You can use the passive voice with transitive phrasal verbs:

He took the files out of the archives.
The files were taken out of the archives.

Someone has put away the tools.
The tools have been put away.

Some phrasal verbs are intransitive. It is not possible to create sentences in the passive voice with these, because there is no object:

The car slowed down.
He is running away.

Summary: Passive Voice Lesson

  • In the active voice, the subject of the sentence DOES the action. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon.
  • The passive voice is formed by a form of the verb TO BE + past participle of the main verb. The verb TO BE can be conjugated in various tenses.
  • You can use a modal verb + be + past participle (for things in the present/future) – Ex) Something should be done about this problem.
  • You can use a modal verb + have been + past participle (for things in the past) – Ex) Something should have been done about this problem a long time ago.
  • The passive voice is used when the person who did the action is unknown, obvious/unimportant, “people in general,” or less important than the object.
  • We can include “by… (the doer)” if we know who did the action and want to mention it because it is somewhat important.
  • We can’t use the passive voice with intransitive verbs and some state verbs.
  • We can use the passive voice with transitive phrasal verbs.

You’ve finished Lesson 15! Now continue to the exercises to get more practice with the passive voice.

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