What is the passive voice in English grammar?
If the subject of our sentence gets or receives something – something happens to the subject of our sentence – we can use the Passive Voice. 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.
- Easy to follow explanations, learn the grammar step by step
- Helpful for beginner and advanced students
- Lots of natural examples
- Links to helpful resources
- Fun and interesting images to help you remember new grammar points
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. ~ This sentence is in the active voice. The subject of our sentence does something.
Paul was bitten by a mosquito. ~ This sentence is in the passive voice. Something happens to the subject of our sentence.
Passive Voice grammar
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)
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.
“…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.“
The past participle is a verb form used for making perfect tense (had given – have given – will have given) and for the passive voice (she was given a new computer).
Remember we use the correct tense of the verb to be with the past participle form of the verb from the main action.
Paul was bitten by a mosquito. (Bitten is the past participle of bite.)
Present tense ~ bite
Past tense ~ bit
Past participle ~ bitten
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
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.”
This is the past perfect tense. My family ate all the cake!
“The cake had been eaten!”
This is the passive voice. In the passive voice the cause of what happened is often not known or not important. In this example whoever ate the cake is not important. The main focus here is that the cake is gone.
➧We use the preposition by if we want to say what caused the action.
“The cake had been eaten by my family!”
*Remember: “Paul was bitten by a mosquito.”
Another example: to forget
Present tense ~ forget
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.”
“The lost and found office at the station is full of umbrellas that were forgotten on the train.”
➧For all regular verbs (verbs whose past tense is ~ed) the past participle and the past tense are the same.
Present tense ~ clean
Past tense ~ cleaned
Past participle ~ cleaned
“My brother said he had cleaned his room this morning, but he was watching TV.”
“The hotel rooms are cleaned every morning before 11:00.”
➧Some irregular verbs also use the same form for past and the past participle.
Present tense ~ buy
Past tense ~ bought
Past participle ~ bought
“Have you ever bought something and then felt like it was a mistake the next day?”
“The painting was bought by a private collector in 1911 and it was given to the museum by his family in 1976.”
There is a link to a list of verb forms with the past participle at the end of this post!
Passive voice in English More examples
Harry was struck by lightning!
Present tense ~ strike
Past tense ~ struck
Past participle ~ struck
Brian was promoted after just 6 months.
Present tense ~ promote
Past tense ~ promoted
Past participle ~ promoted
➧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.
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
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 break.
Different verb tenses with the Passive Voice
Next week is my mother’s birthday.
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.
How do you feel about the passive voice now? Can use it with confidence? Write some examples in the comments below!
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