Learn how to use the „passive voice“ in English
Do you have trouble understanding the ‚passive voice‘? In Grammar man’s latest upload, he teaches you why we use the passive voice, when we use the passive voice, and most importantly, how to use the passive voice in all tenses and aspects – The formula for the passive.
Hi English learners, and welcome to another episode of English lessons with Grammar Man, coming to you from Progressive English, the language school in Zurich Switzerland. Be sure to click on the website for more learning material and English lessons and courses.
Today’s lesson is all about the Passive – often called the passive voice.
Many learners find the passive a little intimidating, but I’m going to show you now the formula which will make things much easier. That’s the key – knowing the formula, and then practising it. At the end of the video I will give you a link to a practise sheet, and a cheat sheet of formulas, so be sure to check that out at the end of the video.
In English, we have active sentences, and passive sentences.
Active sentences are much more common, they are how we normally speak in our everyday conversations.
In an active sentence, the SUBJECT performs the action.
It is our normal sentence structure – subject – verb – and if it’s a transitive verb, we have an object.
E.g., I ate a pizza
In a passive sentence, the subject is having the action done to it.
The formula for the passive voice is: BE + PAST PARTICIPLE – (v3)
Let’s do an example:
I ate the pizza becomes – the pizza was eaten (by me)
So how did I do that?!
All I did was:
Step 1 – took the OBJECT in the active sentence – the pizza – and put it in the SUBJECT position.
Step 2 – then I added the auxiliary verb ‘be’, in the same tense as the main verb in the active sentence – so the main verb is ate (past tense), we add ‘be’ in the past tense – so WAS.
Step 3 – then I added the past participle of the main verb in the active sentence – so ‘ate’ in the past participle form, is ‘eaten’.
Step 4 – now step 4 is optional – depending on if you want to say who did the action or not. Most of the time we use passive voice, we don’t mention the ‘doer’ of the action. It is one of the reasons people choose to say a sentence using passive voice – THE EMPHASIS IS ON THE ACTION, NOT THE PERSON DOING THE ACTION.
It is commonly used by politicians actually, to avoid saying ‘who did the action’. For example, instead of a political party saying – we made some mistakes, they commonly use the passive voice to avoid responsibility, and say – mistakes were made!
But when we want to say who did the action, we use the preposition ‘by’, + the doer of the action. We call this the ‘agent’.
So we would say – the pizza was eaten by me
Now can every sentence be made into the passive? No, definitely not.
We cannot form passives with verbs that don’t have an object. Verbs without an object are called intransitive verbs.
For example, ‘His goldfish died’ – died is an intransitive verb because it has no object, so this cannot be made passive. Remember, to form a passive sentence, we promote the OBJECT TO THE SUBJECT POSITION, if there is no object, then this is impossible!
We also don’t often use the passive with ‘stative verbs’. Remember, verbs can show an action or a state of being, so stative verbs are verbs that show a state of being, as opposed to an action. Common stative verbs are verbs that express thoughts, feelings, senses, possession, and the verb to be.
For example – I have a pen –
Even though we have an object – a pen, the verb ‘have’ is functioning as a stative verb, showing possession, and so we can’t make passive. You can’t say ‘a pen is had by me!’
And we also don’t use the passive with the future continuous, and ALL PERFECT continuous tenses.
Ok, so with that being said, let’s take a look at how we form a passive sentence, in the rest of our tenses and aspects, that can be made passive. After I show you how to form the passive in the different tenses and aspects, I will tell you WHY and WHEN we use the passive.
So starting with present simple – people drink champagne at weddings = champagne is drunk at weddings.
Exactly the same process that we did in the past simple example, with the pizza.
If we want to add the agent, we add the preposition by + the agent. Champagne is drunk at weddings by people.
I wouldn’t add the agent here, because it is obvious that people will drink the champagne.
Let’s try a continuous tense. past continuous – continuous is slightly different. IT’S STILL THE SAME FORMULA, FOR ALL OF OUR TENSES, ‘BE + PAST PARTICIPLE’, but this time we use the CONTINUOUS FORM of the verb ‘be’.
Active sentence – She was walking the dog when it bit the man.
Passive sentence – The dog was being walked when it bit the man
Step 1: we moved the object to the subject position – we ALWAYS promote the object to the subject position, no matter what tense or aspect. It is always step 1 when forming the passive. So the object – the dog, becomes the subject.
We also keep the auxiliary verb: WAS, which shows that we are talking about the past, and we always need an auxiliary in the continuous aspect.
Step 2: we add the verb ‘be’, but because it is a continuous tense, we add the verb ‘being’
And step 3: We add the past participle of the main verb, so walked.
If we want to add the agent, we say: The dog was being walked by her when it bit the man.
Alrighty, let’s do another example, this time present continuous.
She is washing my car.
Step 1: object becomes the subject = my car
Again, we keep the auxiliary verb ‘is’ because it shows us the tense – present, and is part of the continuous formula.
step 2: because it’s a continuous tense, we add the verb ‘being’.
step 3: we add the past participle of the main verb, so: washed
My car is being washed.
And if we want to say by whom, we add by + the person.
My car is being washed by her.
So hopefully you’re getting the idea. Let’s try the future simple.
(active) don’t worry! I’ll finish the work before I go home
so, as always, step 1: the object becomes the subject = the work
we keep the modal auxiliary verb ‘will’, because it shows us the tense, and is a part of the future simple formula.
step 2: add the auxiliary verb ‘be’, and it is not in the –ing form this time, because the active sentence is not continuous.
step 3: we add the past participle of the main verb, so finished.
Don’t worry! The work will be finished (by me) before I go home.
Now, a perfect tense – present perfect
active – Many people have seen that film
Step 1: object becomes subject, so ‘that film’.
We keep the auxiliary verb ‘have’ because it shows us the tense and is always part of the perfect aspect formula, but we must conjugate to suit the new subject. In the active sentence, the subject was plural – PEOPLE – so we used ‘HAVE’, but now the subject is singular, ‘THAT FILM’, so we use ‘HAS’.
Step 2: we add the auxiliary ‘be, but after ‘have/has/had’ we use ‘been’.
and step 3: we add the past participle of the main verb, so ‘seen’.
That film has been seen (by many people)
Let’s try past perfect
He had answered the question.
step 1 = the question
2. We keep had, as it tells us the tense and is part of the past perfect formula.
3. Add been
- 4. past participle = answered
The question had been answered (by him)
And the final tense that we can convert into the passive voice, is future perfect.
She will have bought a new phone
1. A new phone
We keep the auxiliary ‘will’ because it shows the tense, and we keep ‘have’, because it’s a perfect tense.
Add ‘been’ for perfect tenses
3. Add past participle, so irregular verb buy/bought/bought
A new phone will have been bought (by her)
So, that is ALL of the tenses, changed from active voice to passive voice.
So when do we use this ‘PASSIVE VOICE’
It is used when we don’t know the subject:
E.g this photo was taken in Japan.
It is used when we don’t want to mention the subject, or IT IS NOT IMPORTANT.
Breakfast will be served at 6am. Commonly said at hotels, by the receptionist when you check in. It’s not important WHO serves us breakfast, as long as we get our bacon and eggs!
It is used when it is obvious who the subject is:
The man was arrested last night (we don’t need to say ‘by the police’)
We want our reader to focus on the result of an action, rather than on who is doing the action.
So instead of saying ‘construction workers built the Sydney harbour bridge in 1923’, which emphasizes unnecessarily WHO built the bridge,
You would use the passive voice, and say ‘the Sydney harbour bridge was built in 1923’ – which emphasizes the factual information, WHEN the bridge was built.
And lastly, often in academic writing, we want to focus on the factual information, as opposed to WHO is doing an action. We want our reader to focus on the result of an action.
E.g., Scientists classify glass as a solid – active
Glass is classified as a solid – passive voice – the emphasis is on the thing receiving the action – the glass – and not on the person doing the action – the scientists.
Annnd, that is basically it there guys!
That’s a lot of information to take in, it may seem strange at first, but with a bit of practise it’s not as difficult as it first appears. What will make it easier, is to visit the Progressive English website, and download your free ‘cheat sheet’ of the formulas for the passive, with the different tenses that we went through in the video, and there is also a great practise sheet with answers, so you can get some experience using the passive.
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