The Passive Voice


What is the passive and when do we use it?

To understand what the passive is and when we you have to use it, means we have to start first by answering, what is the active.

In an active sentence, the subject is the agent (the person doing the action a.k.a ‘the doer’).  The “doer”, according to Parrot (2010, p. 331), usually establishes what the clause is about often referring to something already known to the listener or reader The information that comes after this, is usually “new or important information.”

Look at this example:

Hester kicked Susan.

Q: Who is the focus on, Hester or Susan?

A: The focus is on Hester because Hester is the subject and is doing the action.

Note the difference: In an active sentence, the subject does the action. In a passive sentence, the subject does not do the action. In a passive sentence the subject and the object change places and receives the action.

USE 1#- When we want to change the focus we use the passive

Look at this example:

Hester kicked Susan. [Active]

When we want to take the focus of the person doing the action and put the focus on the action itself, we use the passive.

Susan was kicked (by Hester)* [passive]

Q. Who is the focus on, Hester or Susan?

A. The focus is on Susan.

Q. What makes use focus on Susan?

A. The action being done to her i.e. was kicked.

* It is not important to know who done the action, that is why (by Hester) is optional. We can say, “Susan was kicked,” and “Susan was kicked by  Hester”. In both cases, the focus is still on Susan and the fact that she was kicked.

Another example:

“I’ve been fired”.

Q. Do we care who did the action?

A. No.

Q. Do we care what happened to the subject?

A. Yes.

USE 2# Formal or written language

The passive is often used to bring formality to written language. Examples of this is often found in academic journals, contracts, workplace rules etc

For example:

English must be spoken at school.

USE 3#  When the agent is unknown/ obvious or unimportant

We can use the passive to highlight the action that happened and not the agent that did the action. When this happens the agent is either unknown, obvious or unimportant.


Look at this example:

My bike was stolen.

Q. Do we know who stole the bike?

A. No

Note: The agent is unknown

Another example:

Kangaroo meat is often eaten in Australia.

Q. Do we know who eats Kangaroo meat in Australia?

A. No

Q. Is it important that we know who eats Kangaroo meat?

A. No.

Note: The agent is unimportant.

How do we make the passive?

To make the passive the formula used is “be verb + past participle”

Look at the table below:


Passive Tenses  

“be verb”

past participle (p.p.)

Present Simple is/am/ are p.p.
Present Continuous is/am/ are verb +ing p.p.
Past Simple was/were p.p.
Past Continuous was/were be + ing p.p
Present Perfect has/have be (en)*  
Past Perfect had be(en) p.p
Future Simple will be p.p.


>There is not passive form for the present perfect continuous the past perfect continuous  



Your can only make a passive with a transitive verb.

Q. Why?

A. Because passives ALWAYS need an object and  transitive verbs ALWAYS have objects (direct objects).

Side note: Anything you can use as a subject you can use as a direct object.

* Be(en)= past participle

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