A few of my students are confused about using the ‘passive’ voice I wanted to make a quick post to clear up the confusion.
First of all, what is the passive voice?
In the most commonly used ‘active voice’ the subject does the action:
“The player picked up the ball”
The player (subject) picked up (verb) the ball (object)
Whereas in the passive voice, the subject is the receiver of the action:
“The ball was picked up”
The ball (subject) was picked up (verb)
Let’s look at another example,
“The doctor saved the patient” -> passive voice: “the patient was saved by the doctor”
You can see that in both of these examples, the passive voice describes the same thing as the active voice sentence but it changes the focus of the sentence.
In example 2, the focus changes so that the patient becomes more important than the doctor.
In example 1 the ball becomes more important than the player (so much so that we don’t even need to say who picked up the ball).
When to use the passive voice
There are a few different scenarios where you can choose to use the passive voice, it always depends on what you want to be the focus of the sentence
The passive voice is most commonly used:
- when we don’t know who did the action
The bike was stolen.
- the person who did the action is unimportant or just ‘people in general’
The restaurant is redecorated every two months.
The floorboards in the office were worn down.
- when we want to put more emphasis on the receiver of the action than the ‘doer’ of the action.
The students were saved!
(In this sentence the students are considered most important, so the focus is put on the fact that the students were saved, the person who saved them is not as important.)
How to use the passive voice
Start the sentence with the subject – whatever you want to be the focus of your sentence – then add “to be” with the correct form , this will change depending on the tense and whether the subject is singular or plural.
Simple present singular = the pen is
Simple present plural = the pens are
Simple past singular = the pen was
Simple past plural = the pens were
And so on.
Here are some more examples:
The time of the class was changed.
The door was broken last week.
The locks are being changed.
The windows will be left open.
Time to practice!
Try changing the focus of these sentences using the passive voice:
(answers at the end of the post)
- I changed the flat tyre
- Someone left the oven on all night.
- Harry caught the snitch with seconds to spare.
Bonus: When NOT to use the passive voice
You can’t use the passive voice with intransitive verbs (verbs that have no object).
The child grew up.
A face appeared at the window.
Check your answers:
- I changed the flat tyre. > The flat tyre was changed by me.
- Someone left the oven on all night. > The oven was left on all night.
- Harry caught the snitch with seconds to spare. > The snitch was caught by Harry, with seconds to spare.