Passive Voice in English
Ashok wrote an article. So an article was written. Did you see what just happened? In both sentences, we understand that we have succeeded in writing an article, but notice how the object changes position between the two sentences. The first sentence is in the active voice while the second is in the passive voice . But what exactly does this mean?
In this article, we will elucidate this big question: what is the passive voice in English ! Then we will see when to use the passive voice, how to use the passive voice and of course how to form the passive voice in English. We will end with some exercises to apply this lesson
What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is a construction of a sentence where the object of the sentence is put forward, that is to say the one who undergoes the action. The actor therefore takes on less importance, so much so that he is sometimes completely absent.
Some examples :
China manufactures masks –> The masks are manufactured in China
Frida Kahlo painted this picture (Frida Kahlo painted this painting) –> This picture was painted by Frida Kahlo (This painting was painted by Frida Kahlo)
The company will not pay the strikers –> The strikers will not be paid by the company
All verbs in the passive voice are marked in bold. Now that we’ve seen a few examples, let’s look at passive voice formation.
How to Form the Passive Voice in English
Here is a simple training rule to remember: Go to bed!
The usual formation is “Be + -ed”, i.e. the auxiliary be and the past participle marker -ed .
If you already master the passive form in Indian English, you will understand its construction quite easily in English because it follows the same logic. First of all, you have to activate yourself to master the auxiliary to be just like the auxiliary to be in Indian English. Afterwards, you will need to have a good knowledge of past participles in English .
Here is a little reminder of the auxiliary be in English.
- Simple shapes
|He, She, It||is||was||will be|
- The progressive forms
|Topic||Present continuous||Past continuous||Present Perfect||Past Perfect|
|I||am being||was being||have been||had-been|
|You||are being||were being||have been||had-been|
|He, She, It||is being||was being||has-been||had-been|
|We||are being||were being||have been||had-been|
|They||are being||were being||have been||had-been|
- Compound shapes
|Topic||Present Perfect||Past Perfect||Future Perfect|
|I||have been||had-been||will have been|
|You||have been||had-been||will have been|
|He, She, It||has-been||had-been||will have been|
|We||have been||had-been||will have been|
|They||have been||will be||will have been|
If you know English verbs in the past tense (form ending in -ed), then you already know how to form the past participle in English, at least for regular verbs.
thank –> thanked
live –> lived
want –> wanted
- greet –> greeted
I want to clarify that you never pronounce the e in the ending -ed, unless there is a -ted or -ded. Observe the pronunciations above. If this is not clear to you, we explain everything in this article on -ed in English .
I refer you to the article on the present perfect in English for a quick reminder of past participles. Moreover, it is worth revising the irregular verbs to master your -ed.
A passive but not inactive form
Now that we have reviewed the two necessary grammar tools, we can form the passive voice using the Bed trick! .
- I smoked a cigarette –> A cigarette was smoked
he baked a cake –> A cake was baked
- they will write a story –> A story will be written – this is an irregular verb.
Here we see that the agent (the one who does the action) has been completely omitted from the passive sentence. It is indeed not always necessary to put it back in the sentence even if it remains possible. If you want to mention the agent, it must be expressed as a complement and not as the subject of the verb. Here is what it would look like in our previous sentences:
I smoked a cigarette –> A cigarette was smoked by me
he baked a cake –> A cake was baked by him
- they will write a story –> A story will be written by them
Why use the passive voice? When to use the passive voice?
First of all, if you are writing a text with a well-defined subject then stick to the active voice because it is more direct and, unsurprisingly, more active. If the object is more essential in your sentence, then you can consider the passive voice. We will explain the why and how in 5 simple rules.
Rule 1: Highlight the object
The main reason to use the passive voice is to emphasize the object . There can be several reasons for this: The subject is not known, it is not important, or one deliberately wants to hide it. In these cases, the sentence passes better to the passive form.
My purse was stolen – My purse was stolen; and we don’t know by whom.
The holiday has not yet been organized – The holiday has not yet been organized; we don’t want to reveal the person who didn’t.
A new shopping mall is being built – A new shopping mall is being built; we are not interested in the constructor.
- The burglar was arrested by the police – The burglar was arrested by the police; the important information is not who made the arrest (one suspects it was the police), but who was arrested.
By excluding the subject, the interpretation of the sentence is left to chance for the interlocutor. If we want to put the agent in the sentence, we can introduce it with the word by which means by.
Rule 2: The passive voice is used with transitive verbs
A little higher, we spoke that it is the object of the active voice which becomes subject of the passive voice. By definition, intransitive verbs do not have an object, so they cannot be used in the passive voice.
The package has arrived ” and “The child is sleeping have intransitive verbs because they can be used without an object. On the other hand, the sentences I caught (I catch) or You have taken (You have taken) do not have a meaning because a complement of object is missing to give a meaning to the sentence.
I caught the ball can become The ball was caught .
I have taken a necklace will turn into A necklace has been taken .
However, “The package was arrived” is a mistake because the verb arrive has no object. Just as in Indian English we will say that the package has arrived and the package has never arrived because the verb to arrive is intransitive in both languages.
Rule 3: “Continuous forms in the passive voice” – avoid
Do you remember present continuous ? I am eating a cake –> a cake is being eaten . Yes the sentence may seem strange but we tolerate it. What about his cousins?
I have been eating a cake – Present Perfect Continuous
I had been eating a cake – Past Perfect Continuous
I will be eating a cake – Future Continuous
I will have been eating a cake – Future Perfect Continuous
I have good news for you, these tenses are never used in the passive form . Never dare to say been being because it is not said. Easy, huh!
Rule 4: With two supplements, the choice is yours!
Even if we speak in the passive voice, we can still activate our ability to choose when there are two object complements in the same sentence.
Active: The bank loaned money to Christopher
Passive: Christopher was loaned money (by the bank)
Passive: Money was loaned to Christopher (by the bank)
For grammar enthusiasts, money is the direct object complement while Christopher is the indirect object complement. Moreover, if you are interested in money, we are talking about all the expressions concerning money in English .
Note that this is a peculiarity of English, because in India English only the direct object (l’argent) can become the subject of a passive sentence. Christopher is the indirect object complement.
Rule 5: English modals precede the auxiliary “be”
The bank can loan money –> Money can be loaned
He might catch the ball –> The ball might be caught
He might have caught the ball –> The ball might have been caught
This rule applies to this whole category of very particular auxiliary which are the modals:
shall (future), and
- will (future).
If you have any doubts, this can be an opportunity to take stock of English modals and do some exercises on English modals .
Now let’s see if you understood our explanations correctly (unless it was our explanations that were not understood?)
Put the following sentences in the passive voice. The answers are at the end of the article.
Victor collects the money.
Someone has stolen the treasure.
They are going to plant trees.
Elsa will ask the question.
The dogs ate a lot
Could you help the gardener?
- Matthew was buying a book.
Special uses of the passive voice
In general, writing professionals advocate avoiding the passive voice , as these complex turns tend to weigh down sentences. Academic writing even completely rejects this form, which it considers not frank enough. Now, you are the master of your pen, if you opt for the passive, it is because you have a good reason to do so. So don’t hesitate.
Some verbs require the passive voice
Some verbs are mostly used in the passive voice. The best known example is to be born . We always say I was born and it is extremely rare to hear She bore a child (it’s a really archaic formula).
to be stranded – to be stranded or stuck
to be populated – to be populated
- to be sworn in – to be enthroned, to take an oath
For the following, the active voice may be preferable depending on the context
to be taken aback – to be taken aback, to be surprised
to be brokered
- to be arrested – to be arrested
After this topo on the passive voice in English, it no longer holds any secrets for you. Remember that it is rarely compulsory, even less in writing, and that its construction is quite similar to Indian English. Thanks to it, you will be able to vary your turns of phrase, and especially highlight the object rather than the agent.
Don’t forget the big rules which, in the end, are quite simple and very similar to the rules in English.
Now, it is your turn !
Now that you have been sworn into the passive voice, you will no longer be stranded nor taken aback by this grammatical feature.
*Note that it is not always necessary to indicate the agent.
/The money is collected by Victor./
/The treasure has been stolen (by someone)./
/Trees are going to be planted (by them)./
/The question will be asked by Elsa./
/A lot was eaten by the dogs./
/Could the gardener be helped (by you)?/
- /The book was being bought by Matthew./ This sentence is possible but in general we avoid putting progressive sentences in the passive.