5.4 GRAMMAR: Using the Passive Voice
English has two “voices” — active and passive.
In an active voice sentence, the subject does the action of the verb. If there is an object, it receives the action of the verb.
In a passive voice sentence, the subject is the receiver of the action of the verb. The do-er of the action of the verb is optional; if it is named, it is the agent and usually follows the preposition “by”.
Passive voice sentences are very common in academic writing because they make the information feel neutral or objective. Furthermore, sometimes the writer does not know or does not want to name the subject.
Only transitive verbs (verbs followed by an object) can be made passive. To make an active sentence passive, the subject and the object change places. If the active voice verb is intransitive (not followed by an object), then there is nothing to become the subject of the passive voice. For example:
- Active: She bakes a cake. (active voice with an object of the verb)
Passive: A cake is baked by her. (passive voice with an agent)
- Active: I laugh. (active voice but no object — and laugh never has an object)
Passive: Here, the passive voice not possible because there is no object in the active sentence.
How do you form a passive voice sentence?
To form the passive voice, use this formula: (be) verb plus the past participle. For example: is baked
The subject and object of the active sentence change places. For example:
- Active: Mom bakes a cake.
Passive: A cake is baked.
Optional: You can use “by” before the do-er of the action, if you want or need to include it. For example: A new cake is baked by Mom every week.
When do you use a passive voice sentence?
- When you don’t know (or it isn’t important) who does something. For example: The house was built in 1911. (it is not important who built it)
- When you want to emphasize the object more than the subject. For example: The scientific discovery was made in 1950. (the discovery is more important than who made it)
Note: When a sentence has both a direct object and an indirect object, either object can become the subject of the passive sentence. When the indirect object becomes the passive subject, no additional words are added to the sentence. However, when the direct object becomes the passive subject, the preposition “to” is usually added in front of the indirect object. Compare these sentences:
- Active: People gave the earthquake victims some food.
Passive: The earthquake victims were given some food.
Passive: Some food was given to the earthquake victims.
Watch these four short videos to learn more about the passive voice:
Now practice with this exercise; it is not graded, and you may repeat it as many times as you wish:
1. How do you form the passive voice?
- “be” verb + past participle
- “have/has” + past participle
- “have/has” + present participle
- “be” verb plus + present participle
2. Verbs that cannot have an object are called intransitive verbs. These kinds of verbs cannot be changed into passive voice.
3. In a passive voice sentence, what does the action of the verb?
- object of the verb
4. Read this sentence: Someone was cooking beans last night. Which of the following is the correct passive voice form of the sentence?
- Beans was cooking someone last night.
- Someone was being cooked beans last night.
- Beans was being cooked last night by someone.
- Beans were being cooked last night by someone.
5. Change this sentence from active voice to passive voice: Some people use cell phones for navigation.
6. Change the sentence from active to passive voice: Someone might have stolen your tickets.
7. Change the sentence from passive voice to active voice: Video games are played by teenagers.
8. Change the sentence from passive voice to active voice: America has been changed by technology for years.
9. Change this sentence from active voice to passive voice: A worker built that car in Korea.
10. Change the sentence from passive voice to active voice: A test will be taken by students in June.
Optional: Where to get more information
If you want more instruction and examples about the passive voice, try these links:
- English First: Passive Voice
- ThoughtCo: Passive Voice Usage and Examples for ESL/EFL
- Towson: Active/Passive Voice
Videos from: Smrt English. “Passive with Modals.” www.youtube.com, 2 July 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-2xg6IIRNw. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021. “Passive with the Present Perfect.” www.youtube.com, 3 July 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=26NhDja68T0&t=1s. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021. “The Active & Passive Voices #1.” www.youtube.com, 2 Jan. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rlvWoNNrcs. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021. “The Active & Passive Voices #2.” Www.youtube.com, 3 July 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ6bSNimM0o. Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.