Passive Voice

modals

From a teacher's point of view, this topic must be a favourite among students. There is hardly any category, where students have such a lot of personal experience to contribute.

As most students know (cf. picture), to be passive (and not being caught by the teacher) means a peaceful and quiet school-day with the opportunity to save one's energy for the later part of the day. Looks like you don't have much to learn here, right?

However, we are still talking about grammar and that usually includes rules to learn. First we should try to find out, who - from the grammatical point of view - is passive. Let us take a simple subject - predicate - object sentence as an example.

Peter kicks the ball.
S P O

This is an active sentence in which the subject (which you call the agent here to show it is the active part) does something to the object (also called the patient to show it is passive). The agent here is Peter who takes his aggression out on the ball (patient). Kicking can be much fun.



When you see the action from the point of view of the ball, then you will notice, that the ball does not do anything. It is passive. To put this passiveness into the focus of the sentence you go the following steps:

  1. The object of the active sentence becomes the new subject (moves to the beginning of the sentence and takes the subject form if it is a personal pronoun - see example sentence number 3).

  2. The verb form changes to reflect passive voice.

  3. The active part of the sentence (agent) can be added with a "by" construction as a prepositional object (and then takes the object form - see example sentence number 1). However, it can also be left out.

Number 1 is easy to do and number 3, as mentioned above, can be left out anyway, so the real work must be in number2. Here comes what you have to do: To express passive, you must insert the following elements into your predicate:

[be] + past participle of the verb

Note: The form of "be" has to reflect the person and the tense form. For details, see the examples at the bottom.

For our example this results in:

Abstaaaaaand
Abstaaaaaand Abstaaaaaand
The ball is kicked by Peter.
S P (part 1) P (part 2) O

third person singular, present tense

form of "be" that fits to person and tense

past participle of "kick"

(can be left out)

This is a passive sentence in which the subject is not active, but passive. It does not do anything itself.

Note: The passive sentence is totally correct without the object (The ball is kicked.) It is even very often better to leave that object out. For details, read here about the function of the passive voice.



Of course, you can also take Peter and make him the subject of a different passive sentence, but then you might want to introduce a new agent, because balls don't kick back:

modals

Peter is kicked by his best friend.
S P O

(Sometimes kicking is not so much fun.)

So we can say that in an active sentence, the agent is the subject and the patient is the object.

In passive voice the patient is the subject and the agent is the object.

Note: Very often students make the mistake to say that passive sentences have no subject just because the active part is not mentioned. If you think so too, read the last two sentences again.

Before we forget to mention it:

Not all sentences can be transformed into passive voice at all. This has mainly logical reasons. If you cannot believe this, try a passive form of the following examples and see if you find them meaningful:

All right, so far the easy part. Click to switch over to slightly more complex forms of the passive. (But first read the examples below.)

Active voice

becomes

Passive voice

I watch the play.

The play is watched (by me).

Tom repaired the car.

The car was repaired (by Tom).

The detective has followed her.

She has been followed (by the detective).

The workers repair the street.

The street is repaired (by the workers).