Learn all that you need to know about the uses of the active and the passive voice

Active or passive voice?


Some people think the passive in English is difficult. It isn’t really. You just need to understand why and when to use it instead of the active. There are four main reasons for using the passive, and these are explained below. It’s also important to know when not to use the passive. There are two main reasons for you to remember.

General Rules

You make the passive with the correct tense of the verb be + past participle.

People owe me money.
I am owed some money.
Past simple
Matisse painted this.

This was painted by Matisse.
Past continuous
They were taking him away.
He was being taken away.
Present perfect
I’ve sold the car.
The car has been sold.
Past perfect
He’d ordered coffee.
Coffee had been ordered.
Future We will read the report. The report will be read.

You make the passive with the correct tense of the verb be + past participle.

 Spanish is spoken in many Latin American countries. (present simple passive)

 My house is being painted. (present continuous passive)

 The robber was arrested. (past simple passive)

The object of an active sentence becomes the subject of a passive sentence.

 People give money to charity. (object: money)

 Money is given to charity. (subject: monoy/

If a verb has two objects. you usually use the person as the subject in the passive.

Active     No one gave me any directions.

Passive    I wasn’t given any directions. (more common)

No directions were given to me.

Active     Basil taught me history.

Passive    I was taught history by Basil. (more common)

               History was taught to me by Basil.

You use by + agent (person or thing) if you want to say who does the action. Sometimes ifs important to say who did it.

 This statue was created by Henry Moore.

 The ‘Difference Engine’ was invented by Charles Babbage.

When to use the passive?

You use the passive when you don’t know who does the action.

 My car was stolen last night. (I don’t know who stole it.)

You use the passive when you aren’t interested in who does the action.

 I love this poem. It was written about a hundred years ago. (I’m interested in the poem, not the poet.)

You use the passive when it isn’t important who does the action.

 All our computers are checked before they leave the factory. (It isn’t important who checks them.)

 The carpets were cleaned. (It isn’t important who cleaned them.)

You use the passive when it’s obvious who does the action.

 The prisoner is being taken to the jail. (it is obvious that the police are taking him to jail.)

When not to use the passive?

You don’t use the passive when the active is more direct and easier to understand. If you’re in doubt, ask yourself why you’re using the passive instead of the active. If you can’t think of a good reason, don’t use it.

 I’m reading a great book.         NOT        A greet book is being read by me.

Intransitive verbs can’t be passive because they don’t take an object, e.g. arrive, die, sit, sleep. Also, you don’t use the passive with these verbs: agree with, belong, fit, have, resemble and suit.

Always use the active form unless there, a very good reason to use the passive.

 I’ve been offered a fantastic job.       NOT      A fantastic job has been offered to me.