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Passive voice and active voice

by Brian January 07, 2021

Let’s face it – grammar can be head wrecking! Anyone who tells you grammar is easy to learn and understand has probably never tried learning another language and, to be honest, is probably a native English speaker! It really get’s my goat when I’m on holidays and I hear a native English speaker talking to locals as if they are stupid because their English is not very good. Sound familiar?

One area of English grammar that can be quite tricky is the passive voice. On the plus side, the passive voice is generally used in writing which means you have more time to think about what you want to write. When speaking English it is not very common to use the passive voice, as it can sound too formal. However, there are some instances where it’s better or necessary to use the passive voice in spoken English. A good knowledge of the passive voice will also improve your reading skills. So learning to use the passive voice is important if you want your English to improve!

If you intend to do an exam such as the Cambridge FCE, CAE or IELTS then it’s even more important to have a good understanding of the form and use of the passive voice. The passive voice is also used a lot in academic English and sometimes in business English. But before we look at the passive voice, it’s important that we understand the active voice. Let’s get started!

The Active Voice

If you speak any English at all then you are familiar with the active voice! Why? Because a great deal of what we say in English (and other European languages) is in the active voice. Here are some examples:

I watch Netflix every night.

Sue cooks dinner at 6 o’clock.

Kate kissed Peter.

The car hit the wall.

The dog ate the meat.

All of these simple sentences have three things in common. They all contain:

  1. A person or thing who does an action (subject)
  2. An action verb (verb)
  3. A person or thing that receives the action (object)

Let’s take a closer look at one of the sentences:

Kate kissed Peter.

In this sentence:

Kate does the action. Kate is the subject.

Kissed is the action. Kissed is the verb.

Peter receives the action. Peter is the object.

As we can see in this example, the subject of a sentence in the active voice does the action.

The Active Voice

The subject of a sentence in active voice does the action.

The Passive Voice

The subject of a sentence in passive voice receives the action.

The Passive Voice

The subject of a sentence in the passive voice receives the action.

Let’s look at some of the examples we used for the active voice.

Remember the sentence:

Kate kissed Peter

In this sentence Kate is the subject, kissed is the verb and Peter is the object.

If we put Peter at the beginning of the sentence then he becomes the subject.

Now we must change the verb from the active voice to the passive voice.

How do we do this?

We form the passive voice using the verb to be + past participle of the main verb.

The verb to be indicates the tense. The main verb in the passive voice is always in the past participle. So the active sentence:

Kate kissed Peter

changes to the passive sentence:

Peter was kissed by Kate.

In this sentence Peter is now the subject. Peter does not do the action. Peter receives the action.

In the active sentence the verb is in the past simple – kissed. In the passive sentence we must also use the past simple so it has the same meaning as the active sentence. We do this by using the past simple of the verb to be  (was) together with the past participle or third form of the main verb kiss (kiss, kissed, kissed).

Remember this:

In the passive voice the verb to be tells us the time.

The main verb is always in the past participle or third form.

The phrase by Kate tells us that Kate did the action. In a passive voice sentence we use the preposition by to indicate who or what does the action.

Let’s look at another example:

Sue cooks dinner every night.

In this sentence Sue is the subject, cooks is the verb and dinner is the object.

Let’s change this sentence to the passive voice:

Dinner is cooked by Sue every night.

Now dinner is the subject. The word is tells us the tense – present simple. The main verb cook changes to the past participle cooked.

Let’s look at one more example. This time I want you to think about how to change the sentence from the active voice to the passive voice. Let’s use this example:

The dog ate the meat.

What’s the subject of this sentence?

The dog.

What’s the object?

The meat.

What tense is the verb ate in?

The past simple.

Ok, now let’s make a new sentence in the passive voice.

What’s the new subject?

The meat.

How do we change the past simple verb ate to the passive voice?

Remember we form the passive with to be + past participle!

So in this case, we use the past simple of to be and the past participle of the verb to eat.

Got it? That’s right – was eaten.

Now we have the construction:

The meat was eaten.

But what about the dog? What do we add to this sentence to tell us that the dog did the action?

That’s right – by the dog.

So our new sentence in the passive voice is:

The meat was eaten by the dog.

Forming the passive voice with different tenses

We can make sentences in the passive voice with almost any tense. The table below illustrates how we do this.

Tense

Present simple
Present continuous
Present perfect
Past simple
Past continuous
Past perfect
Future simple
Future continuous
Future perfect
Going to
Would
Other modal verbs

Subject

The meat

To be

is
is being
has been
was
was being
had been
will be
will be being*
will have been
is going to be
would be
could/might/must be

Past participle

eaten.

*not used as it sounds unnatural

As we can see from the table above, the only part of a sentence that changes when we change the tense of a passive sentence is the form of the verb to be.

When do we use the passive voice?

So now we know how to form the passive voice. Do we? I hope so!

But I hear you asking….when do we use the passive voice?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, the passive voice is used more in formal writing than in spoken English. However, there are some instances of when we use the passive voice in everyday spoken English. There are four main reasons for using the passive voice, whether in written of spoken English. These are:

  1. When it’s obvious who does the action.
  2. When it’s not important who does the action.
  3. When we don’t know who does the action.
  4. When we don’t want to say who does the action.

For more information on this, check out this blog post on the passive voice, written by my colleague John!

Test Yourself

1 / 10

Which construction describes the active voice?

2 / 10

In the active voice...

3 / 10

Which sentence is an example of the active voice?

4 / 10

How do we form the passive voice?

5 / 10

Which sentence is in the passive voice?

6 / 10

Which preposition do we use with the passive voice?

7 / 10

In the passive voice...

8 / 10

If we change the sentence:  They make a lot of cars in Germany to the passive voice, it becomes:

9 / 10

If we change the sentence: Sophia will feed the cat to the passive voice, it becomes:

10 / 10

If we change the sentence: The children are drinking lemonade to the passive voice, it becomes:

Your score is

Vocabulary

Let’s face it: Something we say before we say something that is unpleasant but true. Example: Let’s face it, we need to earn more money if we want to buy a house.

Head wrecking (slang): Very confusing or irritating. Example: Filling out a tax form is head wrecking. Why do they make it so difficult?

locals Local or native people. Example: When I go on holidays I like to have a chat with the locals.

Tricky: Difficult. Example: Learning a musical instrument is quite tricky.

A great deal: A lot. Example:She spends a great deal of time on the phone.

Take a closer look at: Examine something in detail. Example: Let’s take a closer look at the weather forecast before we plan tomorrow’s trip.

Instance: A particular situation or fact. Example: There have been several instances of bicycle theft at the school recently.

Idioms

Get your goat: Make you annoyed or angry Example: People whom skip queues in the supermarket really get my goat. They should be arrested!

Thank you for reading our post. You’ll find more English grammar tips elsewhere on our site and if you’d like information on our English courses in Dublin, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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