Grammar: The Passive Voice.


What is the Passive Voice?

The passive voice is simply a form where we emphasise the object of a sentence and what is done to the object, rather than who or what is doing it.

Compare:

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

Active sentence

Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.

Passive sentence


How is the passive voice formed?

To make a passive sentence we need:

The verb “To Be” & The past participle of the verb.

It is formed like this:

To be + Past Participle.

For example:

“Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.”


Conjugating the passive voice

Don’t forget that the only part of the passive construct that conjugates is the verb “To Be.” 

The past participle always remains the same.

Tense is expressed by the form of the verb to be, for example:

It will be finished

(future with will)

It was finished

(past simple)

It has been finished

(present perfect)

Reference examples of passive forms.

It was done.Past simple
It has been done.Present perfect
It had been done.Past perfect
It is being done.Present continuous
It is done.Present simple
It will be done.Future (will)
It is going to be done.Future (going to)
It will be being doneFuture continuous
It will have been done.Future perfect
It should be being done.After a modal verb
It should have been done.In the past after a modal verb
It would be done.In conditional
I don’t like it being done.When we need a gerund
He was happy to be invitedWhen we need an infinitive

When is the passive voice used?

The passive voice is:

  • More impersonal.
  • More formal.
  • More ambiguous.

It is often used:

It is commonly used when:

  • We don’t know who did something / who did something is not important.
  • To express general rules.
  • in academic, scientific, news and formal media / communication.

The liquid was boiled and the resulting vapours were collected and analysed.

News Media:

The Prime minister is expected to make an announcement today.

Press / Media

It is requested that you make an appointment at the earliest opportunity.

Formal Communication.

My bicycle was stolen!

The man was arrested.

Irrelevant / unknown agent:

In these examples, if we want to say who did the action we would use “by”:

  • My bicycle was stolen by thieves.
  • The man was arrested by the police.
  • A note about Use in English.

The passive voice is used much more in English than in Spanish or Catalan.

The primary reason for this is that it is a common impersonal form.

In Castellano a sign might say:

“No se puede fumar”

But in English might say:

“Smoking is prohibited.”

Other Passive Forms.

There are two further forms that are commonly used in the passive voice. Instead of saying 

“People believe that he escaped at night.”

We could say either;

“It is believed that he escaped at night.” or

“He is believed to have escaped at night.”

Which are both forms that we will look at in detail in the next presentation. They often don’t translate very well into other languages.