The passive voice in English

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Passive Voice In English
The passive voice is one of those things that really confuse students, not because it’s hard but because you first need to understand some grammar words and ideas that we don’t really think about in daily life. But once you understand those, it’s actually quite easy! You probably have seen complicated diagrams like the one on the right, but don’t worry, you don’t need all of that to use the passive voice. And remember that the Callan Method is a great way of learning without having to memorise complicated grammar rules.  

Active and passive voice

Most languages have a passive and active voice, some language even has other voices (like Albanian and Swedish that have a middle voice). So even if you have never heard of them, you have probably used them in your own language many times. Active voice is what we normally use. It can be explained as something/someone doing something to something/someone, for example I buy a book:
  • someone: I
  • doing something: buy
  • to something: a book
Passive voice is basically switching the roles: something/someone is done something by something/someone, for example a book is bought by me:
  • something: A book
  • is done something: is bought
  • by someone: by me
When we change from active to passive voice the thing/person doing the action and the thing/person receiving the action swap places. In active voice the thing/person who does the action is the most important part, but in passive the thing/person receiving the action becomes the most important. In I buy an book the important thing is that I buy a book, not John or my mother but me. In A book is bought by me the important thing is that I bought a book, not a house or a computer but a book. A lot of times when using passive the by part is taken out because it’s not important, so the passive sentence becomes A book is bought.  

Building a passive sentence

The first thing you need is a transitive verb, that’s a verb that can have a direct object (the thing or person receiving the action). We mentioned transitive verbs in our phrasal verb post as well. To make a sentence in the passive voice you only need to follow this pattern:

subject (the object of the active sentence) + verb to be in the tense you need + meaning verb in participle (+ by agent)

Two things to keep in mind are that sometimes the verb to be is changed to get and a lot of times the agent is not used:
  • Active voice: I buy a book.
  • Regular passive voice: A book is bought by me.
  • Passive voice with get: A book gets bought by me.
  • Passive with no agent: A book is bought.

Should we use the passive voice? And when?

If you write in English in programs like Word you may notice that passive sentences are usually underlined and a ‘passive structure used’ warning comes up. That’s because some consider the passive voice something that needs to be avoided as many people use incorrectly. But when used properly it has several meanings that just can’t be expressed using the active voice.

When NOT to use the passive voice:

  • don’t use the passive voice as a way to avoid responsibility: some bad things were done, instead, say we did some bad things.
  • don’t use the passive voice to make things sound more formal: the results were checked by us, instead, say we checked the results (you can express formality in other ways).
  • don’t use the passive voice and the active voice together in the same sentence: we checked the results and some changes were made, instead say we checked the results and made some changes.

When to use the passive voice:

  • use the passive voice when you don’t know who performs an action: the bank was robbed.
  • use the passive voice when it’s obvious or common knowledge who performs the action: the law was changed.
  • use the passive voice when it doesn’t matter who performs an action: the eclipse can be seen from North America.
  • use the passive voice when the object is more important than the person performing the action: my father was killed.
And if you’re still confused by the passive voice, you can always do what this teacher suggests! To know more about is always better to learn English language with Way Language school using Callan method