What is the passive voice? What are the differences between passive and active voices? And why is the passive voice discouraged in English? We will answer all of these questions and more.
The passive voice is a controversial topic among English linguists, professors, writers, and learners. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, your teacher may have expressed an opinion about using it. Generally, people consider the passive voice (especially in writing) to be a weaker, lesser form of English communication.
First, let’s take a look at the precise definition:
Definition of Passive Voice
The passive voice is a sentence construction in which the subject of a clause or sentence becomes the thing that is acted upon. In other words, the verb form changes so that the thing that is acted upon comes first, while the acting agent comes second (or doesn’t appear at all).
Passive vs. Active Voice
To understand the passive voice better, let’s look at a few examples:
- The soldiers were killed.
- The cat was chased by the dog.
- A tree was struck by lightning.
- My shirt is being ironed.
- The train station will be built next year.
All of these sentences utilize the passive voice. Though both are common, the active voice is the most traditional (and preferred) form of English sentence construction. This is because the active voice is more purposeful and easier to understand.
In the active voice, the subject performs the action and appears at the beginning of the sentence. Alternatively, the passive voice is useful in speech or writing when you want to obscure the acting agent or highlight the thing that is acted upon.
By altering the verb form, word choice, and word order in the sentences above, we can change them to the active voice:
- The officer killed the soldiers.
- The dog chased the cat.
- Lightning struck the tree.
- He ironed my shirt.
- They will build the train station next year.
As you can see, there are some distinct differences between the active and passive voice. In the passive form, we generally see longer sentences, greater frequency of “to be” verbs, fewer concrete details, and more emphasis on the thing that is acted upon.
However, these are not the only differences. There are some specific rules that help us distinguish the passive from the active voice in English.
Clauses or sentences in the passive voice usually use some form of “to be.” However, this does not mean that every sentence containing a “to be” verb is passive. For example, let’s look at the following sentences:
- The boy was hungry.
- The teacher is watching the students.
- He will be tired when he gets home.
All of the sentences above use a form of “to be,” but remain in the active voice. These are active sentences because the subject performs the action and appears at the beginning of the sentence.
Identifying the Passive Voice
- Find the acting subject – Which word is performing the action in the sentence? More importantly, does this word appear before or after the main verb? If it appears before the main verb, the sentence is likely active, but if it appears after, it is likely passive. In many passive sentences, the performing subject does not appear at all.
- Look for “To Be” – As previously stated, the passive voice almost always contains a “to be” verb. So, look for one of the following: is, am, are, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, or being. In some cases, the “to be” verb can be replaced by some form of the verb “get.”
- Look for the past participle – Every passive example contains a verb in the past participle. So, if you see a form of “to be” followed by a verb that ends in -ed (the most common ending for verbs in the past participle form), it is likely in the passive voice.
- Look for “by” – Though there are plenty of passive sentences that don’t contain the word “by,” it is a common way to introduce the agent (the thing that performs the action). Look out for prepositional phrases beginning with “by.” (For example: the woman was encouraged by her friend).
Passive Voice Grammar
Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between the active and passive voice, it’s time to talk about grammar. Though the verb form may change, passive construction looks very similar in every tense:
Receiver of Action + “To Be” Verb (or “Get”) + Past Participle + (optional) Performer of Action
Now let’s take a closer look at how passive voice construction looks in various verb tenses:
|Verb Tense||“To Be” Form||Example Sentence|
|Simple Present||is/am/are||Santa’s presents are made by elves.|
|Present Continuous||is/am/are + being/getting||Derek is being driven to the party.|
|Present Perfect||has/have + been||I have been treated well.|
|Present Perfect Continuous||has/have + been + being/getting||The man has been getting criticized by the media.|
|Simple Past||was/were||The players were cheered on by the crowd.|
|Past Continuous||was/were + being/getting||He was being yelled at by his teacher.|
|Past Perfect||had + been||She had been hired by a new company.|
|Past Perfect Continuous||had + been + being/getting||My team had been getting beaten before halftime.|
|Simple Future||will + be||The coast will be hit by harsh winds.|
|Future Continuous||will + be + being/getting||She will be getting sued in court.|
|Future Perfect||will + have + been||The rebels will have been subdued by the government.|
|Future Perfect Continuous||will + have + been + being/getting||The boxes will have been getting loaded into the truck by then.|
Resources for Using Passive and Active Voice
While your teacher might discourage you from using the passive voice in your writing, there are times when it is useful. As a result, it is important to know the different functions that both the passive and active voices serve. To help you practice identifying both, here are some free passive and active voice resources:
- Passive Voice Exercise
- Active and Passive Sentence Examples
- Passive vs. Active Voice Breakdown
- PV Quiz
Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the passive voice, visit Magoosh Speaking today!