GRAMMAR: The passive voice

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passive_voiceThe passive voice is a grammar form that can be used instead of writing active sentences.
Before we look at the passive voice, think about how you form an active sentence.
The easiest rule to help you build a simple active sentence is to use the Subject-Verb-Object formula. For example:
John makes boots.
In this sentence, there are 3 parts – the subject (John), the verb (makes), and the object (boots).
In a basic sentence*:

  • the subject is the person who does the action
  • the verb is the action
  • the object is the receiver of the action

* This is a simple explanation, but like most languages, there are exceptions and other rules you need to consider.
In the passive voice, the order of the sentence changes. For example:

John has finished the painting.S-V-OThis is an active sentence
The painting has been finished.O-VThis is a passive sentence

There are two important points to note:
1. In a passive voice sentence, the form of the grammar changes and must always include a form of the auxiliary verb be. In the example above, see how ‘has finished’ changes to ‘has been finished’
2. The subject of an active sentence can be completely left out of a passive voice sentence (or can added at the end of the sentence with ‘by’ – The painting has been finished by John). In a passive sentence, the traditional ‘subject’ is often referred to as the ‘agent’. For example:
John has finished the painting => John is the subject in an active sentence
The painting has been finished by John => John is the agent in a passive sentence.

When / why do we use the passive voice?
There are four common reasons for using a passive voice sentence rather than an active sentence.

1. When we don’t know the subjectMy car has been stolenWe don’t know the thief
2. When the subject is obviousTaxes will be raisedIt must be the government
3. We want to avoid stating the agentThe window was brokenI don’t want to say who broke it
4. When we want to bring the important information to the front of the sentenceThe criminal was seen by the security guard.We are most interested in the criminal – not the security guard

All passive voice structures use a form of the verb ‘to be’. See the table below for more detail:

Present simpleThey make toys in that factory.Toys are made in that factory.
Present continuousHe is repairing the computer.The computer is being repaired.
Past simpleThe lesson bored the students.The students were bored by the lesson.
Past continuousHe was driving the car very badly.The car was being driven very badly.
Present perfectSomeone has stolen my car!My car has been stolen!
Future simple (will)I will finish the project next month.The project will be finished next month..
Future with ‘going to’They are going to sell the old factory.The old factory is going to be sold.
Future perfectThey will have eaten all the food before we get there!All of the food will have been eaten before we get there!
Past perfectThey had already eaten most of the food when we got there.Most of the food had already been eaten when we got there.

Note that intransitive verbs are not generally used in the passive voice.
Click here to try the passive voice exercises.

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