Teaching and Learning Since 2002

Passive Voice

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  1. What is the passive voice?
  2. Passive and active voices
  3. How to be passive

What is the passive voice?

First let's look at what the word "passive" usually means to us.

High school girl with books being laughed at by several other students, and she is looking unhappy. Cartoon of male cashier looking unhappy on the outside and ranting and raving on the inside.

We usually think of "passive" to describe someone who is being given a hard time by other people, but is not showing upset feeling. The person is also not fighting back in any way. In the first picture above, the girl is being made fun of but she is listening to the other students and not doing anything about them. In the second picture, the cashier looks upset on the outside and very angry inside, but again, he isn't doing anything.

Angry message written in ketchup on a restaurant table saying We waited 20 min NO SERVICE

Another situation where the word "passive" is used is when we call a person passive-aggressive. A passive-aggressive person does not show anger at first, but later on shows anger in another way. In the above picture, the angry people wrote an angry message on the restaurant table using ketchup. That is not the best answer to their problem. They could have just called on another server or walked to see the manager!

In the two situations above, the people who are passive did not have, or try to have, control. Their situations and feelings are affected by others. The English passive voice work in the same way. It is a kind of sentence that is used to show that something is being affected by something else.

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Passive and active voices

Most of the time we use the active voice. Let's look at how active and passive sentences are different.

[English sentences are SVO (subject-verb-object). The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.]
Active voicePassive voiceWhy passive?
The teacher grades the papers.The papers are graded by the teacher.The focus is on the papers
Richard updates this website.This website gets updated.The focus is on this website
The Seahawks won the Super Bowl.The Super Bowl was won by the Seahawks.The focus is on the Super Bowl

English uses word order (from left to right in a sentence) to show how important something is to the sentence. So if a word is first in a sentence, it is more important than if it were later in a sentence. So in the active sentences above, the persons performing the actions above (The teacher, Richard, and the Seahawks) are most important. In the passive sentences, the papers, this website, and the Super Bowl are most important.

Plain clothed Tim Tebow crushing a football.
Active voice: Tim Tebow is crushing the football.

Crushed football.
Passive voice: This football has been crushed.

Plain clothed Tim Tebow crushing a football.
Passive voice: The football is being crushed by Tim Tebow.

Section Review

Look at the sentences below and for each one decide if it is passive or active.

  1. Seth eats pizza.  ANSWER 

  2. The bank was built in 1932.  ANSWER 

  3. My horse was trained by Dr. Lukas.  ANSWER 

  4. Mariah passed the final exam.  ANSWER 

  5. The money was returned by Toby.  ANSWER 

  6. You practice very hard!  ANSWER 

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How to be passive

No, I don't want you to be passive with other people... I want you to know how to make passive sentences! The easy part is having the subject and object trade places. However, there are two hard parts:

  1. You must change the verb to the perfect participle. ←Click there if you forget what it is.
  2. You need to use auxiliaries (usually some form of [be])

Use the table below to help you:

[If you don't already know some of the tenses below, click on the links to go to their page. If it isn't a link, I don't have a page for it... yet!]
TenseActive → PassiveActive → Passive ExampleOnly difference is...
Simple Presentverb [be]  verbWe play volleyball. → Volleyball  is  played by us.Different tenses for [be]
Simple Pastverb[be] verbWe played volleyball. → Volleyball was played by us.
Simple Futurewill verbwill be verb
[be] going to verb[be] going to be verb
We will play volleyball. → Volleyball will be played by us.
We are going to play volleyball. → Volleyball is going to be played by us.
Present Continuous [be]  verbing [be]  being verbWe  are  playing volleyball. → Volleyball  is  being played by us.Different tenses for [be]
Past Continuous[be] verbing[be] being verbWe were playing volleyball. → Volleyball was being played by us.
Present Perfect  [have]  verb [have]  been verbWe have played volleyball. → Volleyball has been played by us.Different tenses for [have]
Past Perfecthad verbhad been verbWe had played volleyball. → Volleyball had been played by us.
Future Perfectwill have verbwill have been verbWe will have played volleyball. → Volleyball will have been played by us.

According to this BBC grammar page, there is no passive for: future continuous, present perfect continuous, past perfect continuous, and future perfect continuous.

Section Review

Change the sentences below to their passive form. Be careful - a few are tricky! Use the table above to help you.

  1. Barbara will feed the cat.  ANSWER 

  2. I will have mailed the letter.  ANSWER 

  3. Rex likes Shannon.  ANSWER 

  4. They  are  working on the project.  ANSWER 

  5. Mr. Garcia bought the '57 Chevy.  ANSWER 

  6. We had heard the news.  ANSWER 

  7. Louise has tried Sarah's recipe.  ANSWER 

  8. The officers were running the SBG.  ANSWER 

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More content will be added as our classes continue to work on the passive voice unit!

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©opyright 2017 by Richard Knopf
Updated June 8, 2014
-Passive Girl -Passive Man -Passive-Aggression in Ketchup -Tim Tebow -Crushed football