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The Passive Voice–Actions Done by Someone or Something

We use the passive voice more often in English than in many other languages. This voice changes the focus of the sentence. In the active voice, the sentence focuses on who or what did the action. When we use the passive voice, the sentence focuses on what happened, rather than who did it. In this posting I show you the difference between the passive voice and the active voice. I  also show you how to form the passive voice and when to use it. The download will give you practice changing sentences from the active voice to the passive voice.

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice changes the focus of a sentence. It shows that something was done by someone or something. Look at the following sentence: Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. This sentence is in the active voice. The subject (Shakespeare) performed the action (He wrote Romeo and Juliet). The main focus of the sentence is Shakespeare. If we re-write this sentence in the passive voice, will will have the following: Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare. The two sentences really have the same meaning, but in the second sentence, the focus is on Romeo and Juliet, not Shakespeare. The object in the first sentence, Romeo and Juliet, has become the subject in the second sentence.

How do we form the passive voice?

To form the passive voice, use the following formula:

subject + be + past participle+ by + object

The game was won by the Broncos.

Sometimes we omit the word “by.” We do this when it is very clear who did the action and there is no reason to state it. Here is one example: My bike was stolen yesterday. We know that the bike was stolen by a thief. It is so obvious that there is no need to state it. To use the passive voice without “by”, use the following formula:

subject + be + past participle

My car was serviced yesterday.  Note, we know the car was serviced by a mechanic. there is no need to state it.

The passive voice in common tenses.

We can use the passive voice in the same tenses that we use for all other English speaking and writing. Below are example sentences in these tenses.

  1. Simple Present— Most shoes today are made in China. 
  2. Present Progressive— Dinner is being prepared right now. 
  3. Simple Past— My car was manufactured in Mexico.
  4. Present Perfect— Many books have been written about travel.
  5. Past Progressive— Their new house was being built when I visited them.
  6. Simple Future— A new elementary school is going to be built in my neighborhood.
  7. Simple Future— It will be finished next year.

When do we use the passive voice?

We use the passive voice when we want the sentence to focus more on what happened and less on who did the action. The following are examples on how we use this voice.

1. One use of the the passive voice is when the object is more important than who did it.

  • Example: Some Hondas are made in Mexico.  In this sentence the Hondas are more important than the workers making them.

2. Another use of the passive voice is if you don’t know who did the action. Use it also when it isn’t important who did the action.

  • Example: The thief was arrested.  We don’t know the name of the police officer who arrested the thief. Even if we know his name, it would not be important.

3. Use the passive voice in formal writing for scientific or factual information. This gives your writing more authority.

Here are some examples:

  • The liquid is placed in the test tube before the dye is added.  (scientific).
  • The planet Saturn is surrounded by rings.  (scientific)

4. The passive voice is often used in the media and in news reports. Next time you watch your favorite television show, you may hear the following:

  • Monday Night Football is brought to you by Progressive Insurance.  Monday Night Football is more important than Progressive Insurance.

If you watch the news, you may hear the following:

  • There was an accident on I-70. Two people were killed and two more were injured.     We know that the accident killed or injured the people. It is very obvious, so we don’t need to state it.

You now know that the passive voice is often used in English. It is formed with the be verb and the past participle. We can use it in almost any tense. Use it when what happened is more important than who did the action. We also use it when we don’t know who did the action, or it is not important who did the action. Finally, we use the passive voice in formal or scientific writing, for introducing television shows or for reporting the news. The download will give you practice re-writing sentences in the active voice and changing them to the passive voice.

You can download the practice sheet now!

Idioms of the day

  1. To think twice    This means to consider something very carefully before you take action. I would think twice about quitting your job. It’s never easy to fine a new one.
  2. A dime a dozen    This means there are too many of something. People majoring is sociology are a dime a dozen. You should choose a different major that will lead to a good job.

Related Lesson: Phrasal Verbs-Understanding and Using Two Word Verbs



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