English Grammar: The Passive Voice & When to Use It

In English, the subject of a sentence is usually an actor that is doing an action. For example: The boy broke the window.

In this sentence, the boy is the actor who did the action (breaking). The object of the sentence (the window) is what receives the action. The sentence is about the subject (the boy), which is more important than the object of the verb (the window). This is an active sentence, which is also called the active voice.

The Passive Voice: “The window was broken by the boy.”

In a passive sentence, the situation is the opposite. We move the object of the verb (window) to the beginning of the sentence, so it can become the subject. This is how we build a passive sentence:

Subject (The window) + BE verb (was) + past participle (broken) [+ by actor (by the boy)]*

* the phrase by the boy is optional.

Why do we use the passive voice? There are several reasons. Here are four of them.

Reason #1: The object of the verb is more important.

Example: “A body was found in the park.”This sentence in the active voice is: “The police found a body in the park.”

Which is more important: the police (the subject) or the body (the object)? Answer: The body! That is the surprising information! And because the object of the sentence is the most important thing, we change the sentence to the passive voice. We move the object of the verb to the beginning of the sentence so it can become the subject: A body was found in the park (by the police). In this sentence, you probably don’t even need to say “by the police” because that information isn’t important. The most important thing is the body so it becomes the subject and the first word of a passive sentence.

Reason #2: We don’t know who the actor is.

Example: “John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963.”This sentence in the active voice is: “Someone killed John F. Kennedy in 1963.”

In the above active sentence, the subject (“someone”) doesn’t give us any useful information. We don’t know who killed John F. Kennedy so there isn’t really a reason to make “someone” the subject. Again, like reason #1, the object of the verb (John F. Kennedy) is the most important thing.

Reason #3: The actor is obvious so you don’t need to say it.

Example: “English is spoken in many countries.”This sentence in the active voice is: “People speak English in many countries.”

Does the active sentence give us any useful information? No. Why? Well, when we see the verb speak, we know that we are talking about people. People are the only animals who would be able to speak a language like English. There can be no other subject. So, in this case, we can make a passive sentence to focus on the object (English).

Reason #4: You don’t want to say who the actor is.

Example: “Unfortunately, the report wasn’t finished on time.”This sentence in the active voice could be: “Unfortunately, John didn’t finish the report on time.”

Are you John’s friend? If so, you might want to use the passive sentence. The passive sentence doesn’t focus on the actor. In fact, it doesn’t even mention John. By using the passive voice, we can take the attention away from the actor and just focus on the object that received the action (the report). The report wasn’t finished on time. By not including the actor, the listener doesn’t know who to blame.

— —– —

A good example of why we use the passive voice can be seen in this simple conversation:

A: When were you born?

B: I was born in 1978.

Did you know that both the question and the answer are in the passive voice? The word ‘born’ is the past participle of the verb bear (bear/bore/born). We don’t ask “Where did your mother bear you?” nor do we answer “My mother bore me in 1978” because we want to talk about you, not your mother. Your mother is not important (Rule #1). In addition, we don’t use the active voice because we know that your mother bore you. The only person that can give birth to a person is his or her mother. The actor is obvious so we don’t need to say it (Rule #3)

Note: You can only use the passive voice with transitive verbs. Transitive verbs, such as eat, throw, and read, are followed by a direct object. You can eat something, throw something, and read something. Intransitive verbs, such as happen, come, and die, are not followed by a direct object. You cannot happen something, you cannot come something, you cannot die something. Because intransitive verbs do not have a direct object, they cannot be used in the passive voice.

I hope this is helpful. I have included some exercises below if you want to practice.

– Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com 

Passive Voice Practice Exercises

Passive Voice Exercise #1

Change the active sentences to the passive voice. (Only present simple and past simple tenses)

1. I didn’t fix the problem.

2. Police protect the town.

3. John’s mother raised him in a small town.

4. Someone painted the building last year.

5. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928.

6. Nowadays, some students study grammar on the Internet.

Answers

  1. The problem wasn’t fixed (by me).
  2. The town is protected by police.
  3. John was raised in a small town (by his mother).
  4. The building was painted last year (by someone).
  5. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming.
  6. Nowadays, grammar is studied on the Internet by some students.

Passive Voice Exercise #2

Complete the sentences using one of the verbs in the below box. Change the verbs to the correct tense (present or past).

 cause              damage          hold    invite    make     show              translate         write 

  1. Many accidents by dangerous driving.
  2. Cheese from milk.
  3. The roof of the building in a storm a few days ago.
  4. You to the wedding. Why didn’t you go?
  5. A cinema is a place where films .
  6. In the United States, elections for president every 4 years.
  7. Originally, the book in Spanish, and a few years ago it into English.
Answers
2. is made, 3. was damaged, 4. were invited, 5. are made, 6. are held, 7. was written, was translated

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10 comments on “English Grammar: The Passive Voice & When to Use It

  1. vrutika (Posted on 7-27-2014 at 07:24) Reply

    Its really difficult .But you have tried to explain it to a great extent.

  2. meital (Posted on 2-21-2015 at 06:57) Reply

    It’s was great.

  3. Anonymous (Posted on 2-26-2015 at 13:34) Reply

    amazing
    great help
    thanks….

  4. MAK (Posted on 5-3-2015 at 20:46) Reply

    5. are shown

  5. Dom (Posted on 10-8-2015 at 11:15) Reply

    A: Where were you born?

    B: I was born in 1978.

    … shouldn’t the answer be ‘a place’?, as the question is ‘where?’ not ‘when?’

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 10-8-2015 at 14:48) Reply

      Yes. Thank you. I’ve fixed it!

  6. Suchya (Posted on 10-21-2015 at 11:57) Reply

    Nice
    Very useful
    Many doubts got cleared
    Thanks a lot

  7. OSCAR ROMERO VILLALBA (Posted on 10-26-2015 at 20:40) Reply

    Thanks, I like.

  8. all religions are 1 (Posted on 12-20-2015 at 09:15) Reply

    nice website . it was not like i had thought of passive voice . many problems were solved

  9. Roberta (Posted on 6-5-2016 at 15:28) Reply

    I never realized so well how to use the passive!

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