Your Ultimate Guide to The Passive Voice in English
If you’re here, then you’re confused about the passive voice in English.
As you progress in the language, you will encounter sentence structures that might not exist in your native language. This is why the passive voice can be really difficult for many of you—simply because it’s new.
The passive voice is a sentence structure that we use to focus on the object of a sentence instead of the subject.
In other words, the passive gives a different focus to an event.
This might sound a bit complicated, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it. In this guide, I will simplify this concept for you, and teach you:
What the passive voice is.
How to create passive structures.
Important rules and common forms.
When you should use passive forms.
When you should avoid passive forms.
Phrasal verbs that are commonly used in the passive.
Important Tips on Using the Passive Form in English
What is the Passive Form?
In English, sentences can be either “active” or “passive”.
In active sentences, we start a sentence with the subject (the doer). The doer is simply the person (or thing) doing the action.
Let’s look at an example:
Monica kicked the ball.
Here, Monica is the subject of the sentence and she’s doing something to the ball—the object. Notice that the verb is active: kicked.
In passive sentences, we start a sentence with the object—the person or thing receiving the action:
The ball was kicked by Monica.
Here, the object (the ball) becomes the subject of the sentence, and the verb becomes passive: was kicked.
So, even though Monica is the one kicking the ball, she’s not the grammatical subject of the sentence anymore. We changed our focus from the doer to the receiver of the action. The ball is now the subject of the sentence.
|The ball||was kicked||by Monica.|
Note: In passive structures, we use ‘by + noun’ if we need to say who does the action. This noun is sometimes called ‘an agent’. Remember that we can eliminate the agent entirely:
The ball was kicked.
Passive structures without an agent are very common. In fact, agents are mentioned in only 20% of passive structures.
How Do We Create the Passive Form?
In passive structures, we use passive verbs. We create a passive verb by using the verb ‘be’ and the past participle (PP).
Here’s a list of common verb conjugations:
|Present||Simple Past||Past Participle (PP)|
Common Passive Forms
In passive structures, we can use all different tenses of the verb ‘be’ with the past participle (PP).
|Simple present||am/are/is + PP||Spanish is spoken here.|
|Simple past||was/were + PP||He was invited.|
|Simple future||will be + PP||Tickets will be sold online.|
|Present continuous||am/are/is being + PP||The house is being built.|
|Past continuous||was/were being + PP||I think we were being watched.|
|Present perfect||have/has been + PP||The password has been changed.|
|Past perfect||had been + PP||She knew why she had been chosen.|
|Future perfect||will have been + PP||The work will have been done by Monday.|
Use of Tenses in Passive Structures
Normally, passive tenses follow the same rules as active tenses.
To understand this better, let’s look at an example. As you know, we use the present continuous to talk about things that are happening right now:
The chef is cooking the food now.
The same rule would apply to the present continuous passive structure:
The food is being cooked now.
Here’s another example. We use the present perfect to talk about recent events, so let’s look at this form in active and passive structures:
The police have arrested the criminal today.
The criminal has been arrested today.
Passive Modal Structures
Sometimes we use modals in passive structures. Modals are helping verbs that express ability, possibility, permission, etc. Some examples are, ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘need to’, ‘has to’, ‘might’, and ‘should’.
The structure is simple:
Modal + be + past participle
The car should be repaired soon.
My passport needs to be renewed.
Modals in the Past Passive Form
When using modals in past passive forms, the structure changes depending on the modal.
With could, should, and might, we use this structure:
Can/could/should/etc. + have + been + past participle
The car should have been repaired last week.
With ‘need to’ and ‘have to’, we use this structure:
Need to/have to + be + past participle
My passport needed to be renewed before I could travel.
When Should You Avoid the Passive Form?
Generally, active sentences make your writing or speech simpler, stronger, and more direct.
In most cases, editors and experts recommend avoiding the passive because—as you’ve noticed—it’s confusing! A passive sentence is longer and more complicated, so it can make ideas difficult to follow.
Compare the following sentences:
The passive form can make your message confusing.
Your message can be made confusing by the passive form.
When Should You Use the Passive Form in English?
There are times when the passive form is useful and necessary for daily life. For instance, it does a better job of presenting an idea, particularly in the news, and in formal and professional settings. Let’s look at some of its common uses.
Passive forms can be useful:
1. When the doer is unknown.
We normally use the passive structure when it is not clear who did the action. For example, if your car gets stolen, you probably don’t know who stole it, so you can say:
My car was stolen yesterday.
2. When the doer is obvious.
We often use the passive when it’s understood who ‘the doer’ is:
In our next class, the future tenses will be discussed.
3. When people in general are the doers.
When we’re not referring to one person in particular, we can use the passive:
Tickets for the concert will be sold online.
4. When you want to be vague about the doer.
Sometimes, you might want to mention something without directly blaming a person:
Mistakes have been made.
5. When you want the attention to be on the object.
We use the passive when we want to start the sentence with the most important information:
Italy is known for its excellent wines.
6. In formal writing.
The passive might be more appropriate in certain official and professional contexts. For example, in some formal writing, students are generally advised to avoid using ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘we’:
Ten volunteers were asked to participate in the study.
7. In scientific contexts.
Here the object (the result) is more important. It’s also obvious that the ‘doer’ is probably a scientist:
A cure was finally found!
Note: Recently, there has been a movement within many science disciplines to move away from the passive. Now, scientists often prefer active structures in most parts of their published reports. Check with your teacher/professor whether you can use the first person “I” or “we” in your reports to help avoid the passive.
Verbs Not Used in the Passive
Not all verbs can be used in passive forms. For example, passive structures are not possible with intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs are verbs that don’t take objects.
Because these verbs cannot have objects, there is nothing to become the subject of a passive sentence.
Here are some common intransitive verbs:
Also, some transitive verbs are uncommon in the passive. Most of these are stative verbs. Stative verbs are verbs that refer to states, not actions.
- This shirt doesn't fit me.
I am not fit by this shirt.
- The baby has a toy.
A toy is had by the baby.
Here are some examples of stative verbs:
Phrasal Verbs and the Passive
Here are some phrasal verbs that are commonly used in the passive form:
1. Back up
When traffic is backed up, the cars are in a long line and are waiting to continue moving:
Cars were backed up for hours.
2. Black out
When text is blacked out, it is covered with something dark to prevent someone from reading it:
Half of the pages in the report were blacked out for security reasons.
3. Fire up
When someone is fired up, something or someone caused them to feel enthusiastic or angry:
She is fired up because no one agrees with her.
4. Gross out
If something grosses you out, it makes you feel disgusted:
She was really grossed out by the food.
5. Hold up
If a train, bus, etc. is held up, it is delayed:
I’m sorry I’m late, but my train was held up.
6. Rip off
If someone rips you off, they steal money from you, or they trick you into paying too much for something:
I think we were ripped off by the taxi driver.
7. Seal off
When an area or a building is sealed off, people are stopped from entering it because it’s dangerous:
The area around the park has been sealed off by the police.
8. Spread out
When something happens at several times over a long period instead of all at once, it’s spread out:
The students said that the course would be better if it was spread out over two years instead of one.
9. Take in
If you’re taken in by something or someone, you are deceived by them:
Don’t be taken in by their promises.
10. Wash up
If a river or the sea washes something up somewhere, it carries it and leaves in there:
A whale has been washed up on the beach.
Practice Makes Progress
So, what can you do to practice what you’ve just learned? Here are a few possibilities. Feel free to write your answers in the comments section:
Write passive sentences.
French (speak) in some parts of Canada.
The Taj Mahal (build) around 1640.
(you/invite) to the party?
We found that all our money (steal).
These cars (make) in Japan.
Make the sentences passive.
They are repairing your laptop now.
My friend wrote this poem.
The police have arrested the criminals.
They don’t sell alcohol here.
The manager is still considering your application.
Imagine that you return to your old home town after 50 years. A lot of things are different. What has changed? (Make sentences using the present perfect passive).
Example: A lot of new houses have been built.
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About the writer
Sama is the founder of In English With Love and an online English educator from Canada. Her mission is to make quality English learning materials accessible to English learners and teachers everywhere.