The Passive Voice

The relationship between the agent (the one who performs the action) and the action (verb) is called voice. English has two voices--active and passive.

In the active voice, the grammatical subject performs the action of the verb:

Cervantes wrote Don Quixote.

In the passive voice, the grammatical subject receives the action--something is done to the grammatical subject:

Don Quixote was written by Cervantes.

The meaning of the two sentences is the same. The difference is in emphasis or point of view. In the active sentence, the attention of the reader is focused on the agent or person who performs the action (Cervantes, in the example). The agent receives more emphasis or attention.

In the passive sentence, the attention of the reader is focused on the receiver of the action (Don Quixote, in the example).

Formation of the Passive Voice

The transformation of an active sentence into a passive sentence is a three-step process:

1. Move the object of the active sentence to subject position in the passive sentence.

2. Change the verb to passive form (two parts).

3. Move the subject of the active sentence to object position preceded by the preposition by (optional).

Example:

Example 1

In order to change the active verb to its corresponding passive form, we need to do two things:

1. Put the verb to be in the same tense as the verb in the active sentence. In this example the verb is in the simple past, so we use the past tense of be.

2. Use the past participle of the verb in the active sentence.

The passive verb, therefore, has two parts. The verb to be indicates the tense, and the past participle indicates the action.

Only sentences containing direct objects can be made into passive sentences because the direct object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence. If the sentence does not have a direct object, you cannot change it into a passive sentence.

Examples of Passive Forms

The students write reports. Reports are written by the students.
The students wrote reports. Reports were written by the students.
The students will write reports. Reports will be written by the students.
The students are writing reports. Reports are being written by the students.
The students were writing reports. Reports were being written by the students.
The students have written reports. Reports have been written by the students.
The students had written reports. Reports had been written by the students.
The students are going to write reports. Reports are going to be written by the students.
The students can write reports. Reports can be written by the students.
The students could write reports. Reports could be written by the students.
The students should write reports. Reports should be written by the students.
The students must write reports. Reports must be written by the students.
The students may write reports. Reports may be written by the students.
The students might write reports. Reports might be written by the students.
The students have to write reports. Reports have to be written by the students.
The students ought to write reports. Reports ought to be written by the students.
The students should have written reports. Reports should have been written by the students.
The students would have written reports. Reports would have been written by the students.
The students could have written reports. Reports could have been written by the students.
The students will have written reports. Reports will have been written by the students.
The students must have written reports. Reports must have been written by the students.
The students may have written reports. Reports may have been written by the students.
The students might have written reports. Reports might have been written by the students.
The students ought to have written reports. Reports ought to have been written by the students.

NOTE: Although it is theoretically possible to use the passive voice with the perfect progressive forms, they are hardly ever used. The student is advised NOT to use the perfect progressive passive forms. They are considered to be poor style and difficult to understand.

Omission of by

It has been estimated that only 15 to 20 percent of passive sentences mention the agent (in a phrase with by). We do NOT normally use the by-phrase in the following cases:

1. When the agent is unknown.

2. When the agent is obvious or unimportant.

3. When we do not want to mention the agent.

4. When the agent has been mentioned previously.

5. When the agent is very general.

WARNING

Some sentences change meaning when transformed into the passive. Be careful with general statements such as:

Inclusion of by

The agent with by is usually expressed

1. When the agent is new information.

2. When the agent is not human.

3. When the agent is well known and should be included because it is important information.

Impersonal "it" with passive

When we mention the words or thoughts of people in general, we often use an impersonal "it" structure:

Stative Verbs

Stative verbs are verbs which refer to states instead of actions. Some stative verbs are not normally used in the passive. Examples are deserve, desire, fit, have, hear, lack, like, resemble, suit, etc.

Many stative verbs are used in the passive, however. These include verbs such as .admire, adore, astonish, believe, contain, detest, despise, dislike, envy, forget, hate, keep, love, prefer, etc.

The problem for the student is that there are no exact rules that will tell him when to use or avoid stative verbs in the passive. Sometimes these verbs are only used in the passive in special way. Take the verb like, for example:

The best way to learn about stative verbs and the passive is by experience. Read extensively in English and notice which stative verbs are, or are not, used in the passive, as well as how and when they are used.

By vs. With

By is used with the agent, whereas with is usually used to refer to a tool or instrument.

Verbs with Direct and Indirect Object (Ditransitive Verbs)

Many verbs take an indirect and direct object. Consider a verb such as give, which has two patterns:

We can make the direct object the subject of the passive sentence:

Or we can make the indirect object the subject of the passive sentence:


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This page was last modified on 06/15/10

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