An overview of passive voice in English
by Adriana Stein
September 07, 2020

Passive voice can feel complex at the beginning, but once you get the hang of it, the base constructions are the same. For more advanced English learners, knowing how to switch between passive and active voice is a great way to avoid conflict, increase politeness, and advance your language capabilities. So, here is a complete overview of the passive voice in English and when to use it.

An overview of active vs passive voice

The core idea of passive voice is that the focus of the sentence is on the object or person receiving the action, not the person (agent) doing the action. We form the passive voice with:

Object receiving the action + (is/are/was/were etc.) + past participle (+ by + who made the action)

Here are a few examples to clarify:

Active Passive
I made the cake. The cake was made (by me).
My father built this house. This home was built by my father.
He broke the bike. The bike was broken (by him).

Including the section about the agent (by + who made the action) is optional and depends on context. The goal with passive voice is to emphasize the action, not the agent, so adding the section about the agent can mean that you are re-stating something that is already known or unnecessary.

Passive voice examples in all tenses

It’s possible to use all English tenses with passive voice. We use a similar construction:

Object receiving the action + to be (conjugated) + past participle (+ by + who made the action) + rest of sentence.

Tense Active Passive
present simple I ride a bike. A bike is ridden (by me).
present continuous I am riding a bike. A bike is being ridden (by me).
past simple I rode a bike. A bike was ridden (by me).
past continuous I was riding a bike. A bike was being ridden (by me).
present perfect I have ridden a bike. A bike has been ridden (by me).
present perfect continuous I have been riding a bike. A bike has been being ridden (by me).*
past perfect I had ridden a bike. A bike had been ridden (by me).
future simple I will ride a bike. A bike will be ridden (by me).
future perfect I will have ridden a bike. A bike will have been ridden (by me).

*This construction is nearly never used by native English speakers. A much more common version would be “A bike has been ridden”.

Passive voice with infinitives

There are some verbs that require an infinitive verb to be used properly, especially modal verbs (can, will, to have to, might, may, must, need etc.). In this case, the passive voice structure needs to include the infinitive as well. 

Here are a few examples: 

  • He needs to be tested on his grammar skills.
  • John may be promoted next month.
  • Sally expects to be invited to the birthday party.
  • I want to be surprised on my birthday.
  • You might be disappointed with the results.

Passive voice with gerunds

Gerunds are the “-ing” form of a verb. Some verbs and prepositions are followed by a gerund. So, passive voice also needs to account for the same grammar. 

A few examples are:

  • He remembers being taught to ride a bike.
  • The students are excited about being taken on a field trip.
  • The students are excited to be taken on a field trip.
  • Most people hate being interviewed.
  • Most people hate to be interviewed.
  • Dogs like to be pampered.
  • Dogs like being pampered.

Passive voice with verbs with two objects

In sentences with two objects, you can create two versions of the passive voice construction depending on the object you’d like to emphasize. To give an example:

Active: Tom gave me the file / Tom gave the file to me.

It’s possible to choose either object to act as the subject of the passive sentence. In either case, the meaning is the same.

Passive: I was given the file (by Tom)/ The file was given to me (by Tom).

Other verbs that use similar passive voice structures are: ask, offer, teach, tell, lend, promise, sell, throw.

When to use passive voice

In addition to wanting to emphasize the action instead of the agent, there are two other key areas where we use passive voice in English.

Scientific writing

Scientific writing is the most common place that you’ll find passive voice, because scientific writing focuses on objectivity and giving instructions. For example: 

Passive: The chemicals should be combined and then placed into a test tube.

Active: They/he/she combined the chemicals and placed them into a test tube. 

You can notice that the active version doesn’t make sense here, because it’s not a story. Scientific writing is describing processes that anyone can follow, which makes passive voice more suitable here.

To be polite

Another common situation where using passive voice is useful is when you want to convey politeness, especially if you’re in America or speaking with Americans. To English native speakers, using the phrase “you did xyz” can often sound aggressive. So, you can use this tense to make your writing and speaking sound less aggressive and avoid conflict. 

Here is an example:

Active: You didn’t edit the contract correctly, so it contains errors that led to financial losses.

Passive: The contract wasn’t edited correctly, so it contains errors that led to financial losses.

Even though the context of the problem is the same in both sentences, putting the emphasis on the action instead of the agent sounds much more polite. No matter whether writing or speaking, you can use this construction so that the receiver takes less offense and also responds more politely.

Overall, knowing whether to use active or passive in English becomes easier the more you practise.

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