Passive voice

Functions of the passive voice

The passive voice is used to show interest in the person or object that experiences an action rather than the person or object that performs the action. In other words, the most important thing or person becomes the subject of the sentence.

Examples
  • The passive voice is used frequently. (= we are interested in the passive voice, not in who uses it.)
  • The house was built in 1654. (= we are interested in the house, not in who built it.)
  • The road is being repaired. (= we are interested in the road, not in the people who are doing the repairs.)

Sometimes we use the passive voice because we don't know or do not want to express who performed the action.

Examples
  • I noticed that a window had been left open.
  • Every year thousands of people are killed on our roads.
  • All the cookies have been eaten.
  • My car has been stolen!

The passive voice is often used in formal texts. Switching to the active voice will make your writing clearer and easier to read.

Passive Active
A great deal of meaning is conveyed by a few well-chosen words. A few well-chosen words convey a great deal of meaning.
Our planet is wrapped in a mass of gases. A mass of gases wrap around our planet.
Waste materials are disposed of in a variety of ways. The city disposes of waste materials in a variety of ways.

If we want to say who or what performs the action while using the passive voice, we use the preposition by. When we know who performed the action and are interested in him, it is always better to switch to the active voice instead.

Passive Active
"A Hard Day's Night" was written by the Beatles. The Beatles wrote "A Hard Day's Night".
The movie ET was directed by Spielberg. Spielberg directed the movie ET.
This house was built by my father. My father built this house.

Read more about the passive voice and active equivalents for all English verb tenses.

Forming the passive voice

The passive voice in English is composed of two elements:
the appropriate form of the verb 'to be' + past participle

Affirmative Negative Interrogative Negative Interrogative
The house was built in 1899. The house wasn't built in 1899. Was the house built in 1899? Wasn't the house built in 1899?
These houses were built in 1899. These houses weren't built in 1899. Were these houses built in 1899? Weren't these houses built in 1899?
To clean, passive voice
Subject + to be (conjugated) + past participle + rest of sentence
Simple present
The house is cleaned every day.
Present continuous
The house is being cleaned at the moment.
Simple past
The house was cleaned yesterday.
Past continuous
The house was being cleaned last week.
Present perfect
The house has been cleaned since you left.
Past perfect
The house had been cleaned before they arrived.
Future
The house will be cleaned next week.
Future continuous
The house will be being cleaned tomorrow.
Present conditional
The house would be cleaned if they had visitors.
Past conditional
The house would have been cleaned if it had been dirty.
Inifinitive
The house must be cleaned before we arrive.
Passive voice with infinitives

The infinitive passive voice is used after modal verbs and other most verbs normally followed by an infinitive.

Examples
  • You have to be tested on your English grammar.
  • John might be promoted next year.
  • She wants to be invited to the party.
  • I expect to be surprised on my birthday.
  • You may be disappointed.
Passive voice with gerunds

Gerunds are used after prepositions and verbs normally followed by a gerund.

Examples
  • I remember being taught to drive.
  • The children are excited about being taken to the zoo.
  • The children are excited to be taken to the zoo.
  • Most film stars hate being interviewed.
  • Most film stars hate to be interviewed.
  • Poodles like to be pampered.
  • Poodles like being pampered.
Using "to be born"

"To be born" is an passive form and is most commonly used in the past tense. However, in some cases, the present or future tense is appropriate.

Examples
  • I was born in 1976.
  • Where were you born?
  • Around 100 babies are born in this hospital every week.
  • We don't know on exactly which day the baby will be born.

Sometimes the passive is formed using the verb to get or to have instead of the verb to be. A separate page deals with these alternative ways to form the passive voice.

 

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