Sunday, February 26, 2012

An introduction to the Passive

This is not so much aimed at advanced learners as at native speakers whose grammar might have got a bit rusty, and who want to brush up on the Passive.
Or at least be able to identify it.
At the same time you can refresh your memory on the English tense system and how verbs work.

The Passive has had somewhat of a bad press in some circles, but perhaps one of the strangest things is that many of its most fervent critics don't actually seem to know what it is. Here is just one example, taken from the BBC News Styleguide:
The Active voice will help give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact. Compare these examples. The first is in the Passive, the second Active:
  • There were riots in several towns in northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.
  • Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
The second sentence might well be more vivid than the first, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Active or Passive, as both sentences are in the Active. The there is/are construction may have its faults, but being Passive is not one of them.
So what exactly is (and perhaps more importantly isn't) Passive? We shall now find out.


You don't need to know any grammar terms as these will be introduced as we go along. I'll be using the sort of grammar terms used in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), and these will be kept to the bare minimum necessary.
Some of the material here has been re-cycled from a previous post, but is being presented here in a way which I hope is more suitable for an introduction the Passive.
To be able to use the Passive in all its forms, we first need to be totally familiar with the five verb forms and twelve Active tenses of English.
I'm not suggesting that native speakers aren't instinctively aware of these forms and tenses, but they may not know what we call them.

The five verb forms in English

English has five verb forms. That's not a lot compared with many languages. Thanks to the use of auxiliary verbs, also known as (aka) helping verbs, we can construct all our tenses from just these five forms. And in many verbs two of these forms are the same; and in a few verbs, even three of the forms are the same.
The only exception to this is the verb to be, which we will look at a little later.
FormAKARegularIrregular 1Irregular 2Irregular 3
1st formbase formworkhavewriteput
2nd formpast formworkedhadwroteput
3rd formpast participleworkedhadwrittenput
-ing formpresent participle / gerundworkinghavingwritingputting
-s form3rd person singularworkshaswritesputs

The twelve Active tenses

Not everyone agrees on what comprises a tense, but in TEFL we work on the basis of twelve Active tenses, each combining a time (present, past or future) with an aspect (simple, continuous, perfect simple and perfect continuous). Continuous forms are also sometimes called progressive forms.

Exercise 1 - Complete each sentence by entering the verb write in one of the five verb forms.

- 3rd person sg
I lots of emails every day.
She often to her friends.

ContinuousHe is a book at the moment.
Perfect simpleWe have to the Council to complain.
Perfect continuousShe has been emails all morning.
SimpleHe two articles yesterday.
ContinuousHe was all day.
Perfect simpleWe had to them to tell them we were coming.
Perfect continuousShe was tired because she had been all day.
SimpleI will to you tomorrow.
ContinuousShe will be letters at this time tomorrow.
Perfect simpleBy 5 pm he will have three reports.
Perfect continuousSoon he will have been for ten hours.
Infinitive and gerund
InfinitiveI need to to my cousin.
GerundShe just loves to her friends.

Exercise 2 - Select what Active tense is being used in each of these sentences.

1. He had already eaten.
2. She'll be having her lunch at that time.
3. He's talking to Peter at the moment.
4. Has she been to the bank yet?
5. He probably won't have finished it by then.
6. I had been meaning to buy a new one.
7. She went there yesterday.
8. No worries, I'll do it later.
9. Very soon we'll have been waiting for half-an-hour.
10. He goes to the gym at least twice a week.
11. She was wearing a light brown raincoat.
12. I've been writing grammar exercises all morning.

Subjects and objects

Have a look at these Active sentences:
  • Tom kissed Patricia
  • Tom gave Patricia a book
  • Tom is walking along the road
In all three sentences, Tom is the "doer". In the Active, the Subject is always the doer, so in all three sentences Tom is the subject.
In the first question, who or what did Tom kiss? He kissed Patricia. Patricia is the Direct Object
In the second sentence, who or what did Tom give? He gave a book. So a book is the Direct Object. Who did he give it to? To Patricia. She is the Indirect Object.
In the last sentence, Tom didn't walk anything, he just walked. There is no object.

Transitive and intransitive

Verbs that take a direct object are referred to as transitive, and those that don't are called intransitive. A good dictionary will tell you whether a verb is transitive or intransitive.
  • Tom kissed Patricia - transitive
  • Tom gave Patricia a book - transitive
  • Tom is walking along the road - intransitive
  • Tom lives in London. - intransitive
Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive:
  • What's Anne reading? - She's reading 'Harry Potter'. - transitive
  • What's Mary doing? - She's upstairs reading. - intransitive

Agents and targets

Look at this sentence:
  • Johannes Gutenberg (probably) invented the printing press in the 15th Century.
Johannes Gutenberg, the subject, is the doer; he did the inventing. The doer is also known as the the agent (in red), So here the subject and the agent (doer) are the same.
The object of his inventing, the printing press, is sometimes called the target (in green), or the receiver, or (especially by linguists) the patient, or undergoer. I'll stick with target, as I think it's easier to understand. Here the object and the target are the same thing.
But look what happens when we turn it into a Passive:
  • The printing press was invented by Guttenberg
  • The printing press was invented in the 15th Century.
The subject of the Passive verb is no longer the agent (or doer), but the target, the object of the Active sentence. The agent may follow the Passive verb, linked to it with by; or more commonly, not be mentioned at all.
Note that we don't usually use by with personal pronouns.
  • They have serviced my car. - Active
  • My car has been serviced by them. - Passive
  • He gave my sister a book. - Active
  • My sister was given a book by him. - Passive

Action verbs and state verbs

  • They serve breakfast every morning from seven o'clock.
  • She owns a lovely house in the country.
The first verb, serve, describes an action; it is 'an action verb'. The second verb describes a state; it's a 'state verb'. Even though state verbs can sometimes be transitive, we don't normally use them in the Passive:
  • Breakfast is served every morning from seven o'clock.
  • A lovely house in the country is owned by her.

When can we use the Passive?

Exercise 3 - Complete the rules by clickiing on one of the options in grey.

Rule 1. The Passive can only be constructed from suitable verbs
transitive - intransitive
Rule 2. The Passive is not usually constructed from verbs.
action - state
Rule 3. The Passive is constructed with a suitable form of the verb to be and the of the main verb.
1st form - 2nd form - 3rd form - -ing form
Rule 4. When the is unknown, obvious or not important, we miss it out.
agent - target
Rule 5. If we do mention it, we connect it with the preposition .
of - by

Why should we want to use the Passive?

There are about eight or nine reasons why the Passive is a useful construction. Here I'll look at just three or four.

1. Emphasis is usually on the subject.

In English, the main idea usually comes at or near the beginning of the sentence, as the subject; this is where the emphasis is. So if we want to emphasise the thing that was done, or who it was done to, rather than the doer, the Passive is a good way to do it.
  • The Chinese invented or discovered gunpowder, the compass, papermaking and printing (Active) - we are interested in the achievements of the Chinese

  • Paper was invented by the Chinese (Passive) - we are interested in the history of paper.

2. Leading from one sentence to the next.

New ideas are often introduced at the end of a sentence, so if we want to follow on from one sentence or clause to another, the Passive is one useful way to do it.
  • In Britain, the 5th November is a night for firework displays. Fireworks are made from gunpowder, which was discovered by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century.

  • The Chinese invented or discovered gunpowder, the compass, papermaking and printing. These are known as the Four Great Inventions.

3. When we are not interested in who did an action.

Sometimes the doer, known as the agent, is unknown, obvious or not important.
  • My house was broken into last week. (I don't know who by)

  • A man has just been arrested for burglary. (presumably by the police)

  • Some important government documents have been found in a rubbish bin. (does it really matter who by?)

4. It provides some structural variety

In a language where the sentence order of SVO (Subject - Verb - Object) is so important, occasional use of the Passive can add variety to a piece of text, as I hope the next exercise shows.

The Taj Mahal - a case study

By Yann; edited by King of Hearts, via Wikimedia Commons

Exercise 4 - Look at this text loosely based on the entry at Wikipedia. Tick the boxes where you think the line would be better in the Passive, check your answers then click on 'Show my version'.

Change to Passive
If you are ever in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, you must visit the Taj Mahal.
Shah Jahan built this architectural masterpiece in the 17th century.
Jahan was the Mughal Emperor at a time of great prosperity in the empire.
But sadly his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died in childbirth,
and grief overcame Shah Jahan.
So he decided to build a mausoleum in her memory.
People widely recognize the Taj Mahal as the 'jewel in the crown' of Muslim art in India.
It is the finest example of Mughal architecture,
which combines elements from Persian, Turkish and Indian architectural styles.
Construction began in 1632.
They completed the principal mausoleum in 1648,
and finished the surrounding buildings and gardens five years later.
While people constructed early Mughal buildings mainly in red sandstone,
Shah Jahan promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.
and buildings under his patronage reached new levels of refinement.

The verb to be

Now fill in all the forms of the verb to be. Knowing the names of these helps when we come to dicuss the construction of the Passive.

Exercise 5 - Enter the correct forms of to be to complete the tenses

he, she, it
we, you, they

I a teacher by profession.
She very intelligent.
They married.

he, she, it
we, you, they

I ironic of course.
She very kind to me today.
You very naughty at the moment.

he, she, it
I, we, you, they

I a teacher for a long time.
It very cold these last few days.

I, he, she, it
we, you, they

He a student at that time.
They the first to move here.

I, he, she, it
we, you, they

She strange all day yesterday.
Even though we very nice to her.


He a lawyer before he became a politician.

Simple - all He a teacher
Continuous -
Perfect Simple - all a teacher
Infinitive and gerund
InfinitiveI need to nice my cousin.
GerundShe just loves nice to her friends.
Note - We don't usually use the verb to be in Perfect continuous forms or the Future continuous, as putting two 'be' words (been being etc.) together sounds a bit strange. The same is true for the Passive, where we normally only use eight tenses.

Constructing the Passive

You now have everything you need to construct the Passive. For each Passive tense in the exercise, use the appropriate form of to be followed by the past participle (3rd form) of the main verb, e.g. Past Simple - She was interviewed
George Parr is an investment analyst with the city firm of Parr, Boyle and Fry. His wife Catherine is a historian, a specialist in the later years of the reign of Henry VIII. Both of them give interviews quite frequently, but this week, what with the new allegations of companies 'cooking the books' and the forthcoming TV costume drama series "The wife that survived", they are having a particularly busy week.

Exercise 6 - Complete the sentences using the Passive tenses of interview

SimpleOn average Mr. Parr about once a week.
ContinuousIn fact both Parrs right now.
PerfectCatherine Parr twice already this week.
SimpleShe once yesterday in Bristol.
ContinuousAt the same time her husband in London.
PerfectHe twice already that morning.
Simple (will)And probably he again next week.
PerfectBy Saturday he five times.
InfinitiveThey together tomorrow.
Going toBoth of them tomorrow.
ModalIn fact he might twice tomorrow.
Modal perfectThey must hundreds of times.

Putting it into practice

Exercise 7 - Rewrite the sentence in the Passive, using exactly the same tense as the Active original. Where the agent (doer) is not important, leave it out.

1. They were repairing the road last night.
2. The mayor will inaugurate the tram system.
3. Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice.
4. Something could have delayed her.
5. They had closed the road for repairs.
6. The BBC are to introduce a new radio service.
7. They might cancel the concert.
8. Fifty thousand people will have visited the new centre by the end of the week.
9. Somebody is going to unveil the new monument tomorrow.
10. They are giving her the details right now.
11. People often ask me a lot of stupid questions.
12. The Queen has opened a new footbridge over the Thames.

Recognising the Passive 1. Active or Passive?

Now that you know what the Passive is, make sure you can correctly identify it. All of the following sentences, or sentences very like them, have been identified as Passive by intelligent writers. But only seven out of the twelve sentences are in fact in the Passive. See if you can do better than those writers.
After you've done the exercise, read my comments.

Exercise 8 Look carefully at these sentences and mark them Active or Passive. The last four are in headline format, so you will have to work out the full sentence.

1.There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night.
2.Fortunately, the riots were quickly brought under control.
3.But only after several hundred people had been arrested.
4.Henry was totally amazed by all the interest shown in his project.
5.Henry was obviously very interested in completing his project.
6.The interest that has been shown in Henry's project is amazing.
7.MI (Military Intelligence) has told them not to talk to the press.
8.MI (Military Intelligence) have been told to not to talk to the press.
9.New Shooting Spoils Hopes of Truce
10.Peace Treaty Threatened By New Shooting.
11.Bomb in City Centre Detonated in Controlled Explosion.
12.Bus Explodes in City Centre Causing Considerable Damage.

Recognizing the Passive 2 - Passive, adjective or Perfect?

As we have just seen, the Passive sometimes gets confused with adjectives based on past participles , and with Active Perfect and Past tenses.

Exercise 9 - Decide whether the underlined past participles are part of a Passive construction (Pass), adjectives (Adj), or being used in an Active Perfect or Past tense (Act)

1.He was surprised by the security man as he was robbing the till.
2.She was surprised at the reaction to her speech.
3.The young pianist's performance surprised the critics.
4.The crisis has depressed wages in many sectors.
5.When the accelerator pedal is depressed, the car goes faster.
6.She's been depressed since the accident.
7.He was tired of constantly being hounded by the press.
8.He has tired of all the press attention he has been getting.
9.He had been tired out by all the constant press attention.
10.She must have confused this man with somebody else.
11.He is easily confused by the smallest problem.
12.I'm confused. Is today Wednesday or Thursday?
13.As a young man he felt alone and misunderstood.
14.His speech has been misunderstood by a lot of people.
15.You have completely misunderstood what I was saying.

Passive-like constructions

There are a couple of forms very similar to the Passive, often referred to as Passive-like. They use a similar construction to the Passive, but with different verbs instead of be. They are not usually considered as being Passive Voice.

We got done!

In informal language, we often use a passive-like expression with get.
  • She got caught cheating.
  • We got soaked in the rain yesterday.
  • He got arrested for fraud.
You can read more about this in my post on the many uses of the verb get

Have something done

We use this expression when we get somebody else to do something for us, usually for money. In EFL it's often called causative have. Get can sometimes be used in the same way.
  • We're having this room repainted soon.
  • I think I'll get my hair cut tomorrow.
  • He's just had his car serviced.
  • She's getting her garden seen to at the weekend.
You can read more about this in my post on causative verbs.

Final thoughts

  • Some sentences sound better in the Active
  • But equally, some sentences sound better in the Passive
  • Not all Active sentences can be made Passive
  • And not all Passive sentences can meaningfully be made Active
  • The Passive is used quite often and doesn't have to sound formal or longwinded
  • It's easy to be over formal and too wordy only using Active sentences
  • Some Active verbs can express a passive idea. But that doesn't make them grammatically Passive.

Some non-formal examples of the Passive

  • Apparently he was born in Hungary.
  • They were married in the local church.
  • It's supposed to be a genuine Rolex, but I have my doubts.
  • She's meant to be arriving any minute.
  • Do you know his first book was published when he was only 15. Amazing!
  • Peter's flight has been delayed because of some strike or other.
  • It's a shame the youth club was so badly damaged in last year's fire.
  • We came by bus because the car's being serviced today.
  • The report? The final version is being typed up as we speak.
  • He was had up for speeding twice last year.

Some even less formal examples of the Passive

Some of these examples use very colloquial language, or language used by certain groups. They are not necessarily being put forward as examples of wonderful English. On the other hand they are all, as far as I'm aware, grammatically perfect.
  • Three quid for a coffee! You've been done there, mate!
  • Would you believe it! I've just been given the heave-ho. Again!
  • Late again! You're fired!
  • I've had enough of being screwed around like this.
  • Some ref he is! We were robbed!
  • Don't tell me you fell for that email scam. You're so easily had!
  • I've been tweeted three times this week. And 'liked' on Facebook.
  • Like I was so not taken in by his smarmy charm!
  • I just can't be bothered with his arty-farty friends.
  • So I use the Passive sometimes! Am I bothered?
For some thoughts on the way the Passive is villified, misunderstood and mis-identified, see my previous post, which has plenty of links for further reading.



  1. Thanks for sharing. Doing the passive this week so really helped. Thanks.

  2. Please add a Twitter share button to your blog! That's the least you can do to help people spread the word about your valuable and intelligent grammar posts!

  3. Hi again, Baiba. Sorry I never got round to answering your last comment, on would.

    But surely I have got a Twitter button. Two even. One a rather quiet grey one, in the row with the Facebook, Blogger and gMail buttons next to Google +1. And another on the right above the map. They both seem to be working on mine anyway. And I know people have tweeted from here, it shows up in my stats. Or perhaps you mean something else? I'm not very well up on social media.

    Hi,Barry. Thanks. It's always good to have a bit of encouragement.

  4. Sorry WW, I must have been blind... or terribly absent-minded! I see the buttons all right! Thanks, and thanks for the never ending stream of brilliant lessons which perfectly complement any grammar book one uses.