What is the passive voice in English grammar?
Passive voice uses the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were) plus the past participle form of the verb in the main action
|Paul was bitten by a mosquito.|
|Compare this with the Active Voice|
|A mosquito bit Paul.|
There is a video at the end of this post that you can watch to review the grammar AND improve your English listening skills.
Passive voice English Grammar
Many of my private and company English students have trouble using the passive voice, so I was inspired to write this blog post.
I will explain the active and passive voice with some simple examples.
A mosquito bit Paul.Bit is the past tense of the verb TO BITE
~ This sentence is in the active voice. The subject of our sentence does something.
Paul was bitten by a mosquito.Bitten is the past participle of the verb TO BITE
~ This sentence is in the passive voice. Something happens to the subject of our sentence.
Here is a simple way we can think about the passive voice. If the subject of our sentence gets or receives something (something happens to the subject) we use the correct form of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were) plus the past participle form of the verb in the main action.
“Paul was bitten by a mosquito.“
The subject of a sentence is the noun (person, place or thing) that did, does or is doing something:
Ryan drives a Corvette. (Ryan is the subject of this sentence.)
~ or the noun that is being something.
His Corvette is red. (Ryan’s Corvette is the subject of this sentence.)
What are the subjects of our first 2 examples?
① A mosquito bit Paul.
② Paul was bitten by a mosquito.
In sentence ① ‘A mosquito‘ is the subject because it did something ~ It bit Paul.
In sentence ② ‘Paul‘ is the subject because he was bitten ~ Paul received a bite.
When we want to talk about something that happened to someone or something we will use the passive voice. The grammar from example ②.
“Paul was bitten by a mosquito.”
“…we use the correct form of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were) plus the past participle form of the verb in the main action.“was bitten
What is the past participle?
The past participle is a verb form used for making the perfect tense (had given – have given – will have given) and for the passive voice (She was given a new computer).
Learn more about the perfect tense here – How to use the Present Perfect Tense (English Grammar)
Remember that we use the correct tense of the verb to be with the past participle form of the verb from the main action to make a passive voice sentence.
Paul was bitten by a mosquito. (Bitten is the past participle of the verb To bite.)
|Present tense ~ bite|
|Present tense third person singular ~ bites|
|Past tense ~ bit|
|Past participle ~ bitten|
Learn more about the past participle here – Past and Past Participle of READ (PDF + Video) Easy Grammar
A common example of the past participle that maybe you have heard before is eaten. This is the past participle of the verb to eat
|Present tense ~ eat|
|Present tense third person singular ~ eats|
|Past tense ~ ate|
|Past participle ~ eaten|
“When I got to the party I was too late to have cake. My family had eaten everything! They didn’t save me a piece.”HAD EATEN is the past perfect tense.
The cake had been eaten!This is the passive voice. (BEEN is the past participle of the verb TO BE.)
In the passive voice, the cause of what happened is often not known or not important. In the passive voice example, whoever ate the cake is not important. The main focus here is that the cake is gone.
The preposition BY with the passive voice
We use the preposition by if we want to say what caused the action.
The preposition by link
“The cake had been eaten BY my family!”
*Remember: “Paul was bitten BY a mosquito.”
|Present tense ~ forget|
|Present tense third person singular ~ forgets|
|Past tense ~ forgot|
|Past participle ~ forgotten|
“Alex had forgotten to pack his toothbrush, so he had to buy one from the drug store beside his hotel.”Past perfect
“The lost and found office at the station is full of umbrellas that were forgotten on the train.”Passive voice
For all regular verbs (verbs whose past tense is ~ed) the past participle and the past tense are the same.
|Present tense ~ clean|
|Present tense third person singular ~ cleans|
|Past tense ~ cleaned|
|Past participle ~ cleaned|
“My brother said he cleaned his room this morning, but he didn’t He just watched TV.”Past tense
“The hotel rooms are cleaned every morning before 11:00.”Past participle
Some irregular verbs also use the same form for the past and past participle.
|Present tense ~ buy|
|Present tense third person singular ~ buys|
|Past tense ~ bought|
|Past participle ~ bought|
“Have you ever bought something and then felt like it was a mistake the next day?”Past tense with the present perfect
“The painting was bought by a private collector in 1911 and it was given to the museum by his family in 1976.”Passive voice
Passive voice in English – More examples
Harry was struck by lightning!
|Present tense ~ strike|
|Present tense third person singular ~ strikes|
|Past tense ~ struck|
|Past participle ~ struck|
Brian was promoted after just 6 months.
|Present tense ~ promote|
|Present tense third person singular ~ promote|
|Past tense ~ promoted|
|Past participle ~ promoted|
Compare Passive Voice and Active Voice
The company promoted Brian after just 6 months.
*The company is the subject in this sentence so we use the active voice. The company did something, it promoted Brian. In this sentence promoted is the past tense of promote, not the past participle. (The past tense and the past participle are the same!)
We can also use the verb GET in the passive voice. (This is used in conversation.)
We will use the correct form of the verb to get instead of to be.
I can’t believe Brian got promoted after only 6 months!
There was a big car accident on the street in front of my office. Luckily no one got hurt.
Hurt is one of a few verbs that don’t change between present, past and the past participle.
|Present tense ~ hurt|
|Present tense third person singular ~ hurts|
|Past tense ~ hurt|
|Past participle ~ hurt|
The past participle is sometimes used as an adjective.
“The car has a broken window.” ~ in this sentence broken is an adjective. It is describing the condition of the car window. Broken is the past particle of the verb To break.
|Present tense ~ break|
|Present tense third person singular ~ breaks|
|Past tense ~ broke|
|Past participle ~ broken|
Different verb tenses with the Passive Voice
Next week is my mother’s birthday and I will order flowers for her online. The flowers will be delivered.
Let’s use this situation with the passive voice using different verb tenses.
Something is happening to the flowers, the subject of our sentences. (except for future continuous!)
|Flowers are delivered every day.|
|Flowers are being delivered right now.|
|Flowers were delivered 2 days ago.|
|The flowers were being delivered when I phoned the florist.|
|Flowers have been delivered in Canada since 1877.|
|The flowers had been delivered before my mom got home.|
|The flowers will be delivered next Tuesday.|
|That flower truck has been behind us for 15 minutes. I think we are being followed!|
|The flowers will be delivered if there are no problems with your credit card.|
|The flowers would have been delivered if we had enough roses.|
|Present tense ~ leave|
|Present tense third person singular ~ leaves|
|Past tense ~ left|
|Past participle ~ left|
Learning a verbs’ past participle form is important for using the passive voice. This is a link for “50 Most Common Irregular Verbs” from ESL-Lounge.com
Watch the video version of this post to review the grammar AND improve your English listening skills.
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