The Passive Voice

The passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. This is because of whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke in the English language:

Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject to be. Instead, the road is the grammatical subject.

The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor in the subject position, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object). We use active verbs to represent that “doing,” whether it be crossing roads, proposing ideas, making arguments, or invading houses (more on that shortly).

Once you know what to look for, the passive voice is easy to spot. Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”).

Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:

Form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

For example:

The metropolis has been destroyed by the dragon’s fire blasts.

When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive!

Let’s briefly look at how to change passive voice sentences into active ones. You can usually just switch the word order, making the actor and subject one by putting the actor up front:

The metropolis has been destroyed by the dragon’s fire blasts.

The passive sentence, when converted into an active sentence:

The dragon destroyed the metropolis with his fire blasts.

When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

This passive sentence, when it is converted into an active sentence:

After robbers invaded her house, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her auction.

To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both the form of “to be” and the past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in “-ed.”

Sometimes, the passive voice is the best choice. Here are a few instances when the passive voice is quite useful:

1. To emphasize an object. Take a look at this example:

60 Senate votes are required to pass the bill.

This passive sentence emphasizes the number of votes required. An active version of the sentence (“The bill requires 60 votes to pass”) would put the emphasis on the bill, which may be less dramatic.

2. To de-emphasize an unknown subject/actor. Consider this example:

Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river.

If you don’t know who the actor is—in this case, if you don’t actually know who dumped all of those contaminants in the river—then you may need to write in the passive voice. Please remember though, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use the active voice.

Also, please consider the third example which is listed below:

3. If your readers don’t need to know who’s responsible for the action.

Here’s where your choice can be difficult; some sentences are less clear than others. Try to put yourself in the reader’s position to anticipate how he or she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts. Here are two examples:

(passive) Baby Sophia was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

(active) Dr. Susan Jones delivered baby Sophia at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

The first sentence might be more appropriate in a birth announcement sent to the family and friends—they are not likely to know Dr. Jones and are much more interested in the “object” (the baby) than in the actor (the doctor). A hospital report of yesterday’s events might be more likely to focus on Dr. Jones’ role in delivering the baby.

Active and Passive Voice Examples – Different Grammar Tenses

Simple Present Tense – Twice a month, Brian cleans his apartment. (Active)

Twice a month, the apartment is cleaned by Brian. (Passive)

Simple Past Tense – John fixed the doorknob. (Active)

The doorknob was fixed by John. (Passive)

Simple Future Tense / will – He will finish his job by 5 PM today. (Active)

The job will be finished by 5 PM today. (Passive)

Simple Future Tense / going to – Jackie is going to cook dinner tonight. (Active)

Dinner is going to be cooked by Jackie tonight. (Passive)

Present Progressive Tense – As of now, Corey is creating a Science project. (Active)

As of now, the science project is being created by Corey. (Passive)

Past Progressive Tense – The detective was working on the mystery murder case when his partner picked up another clue. (Active)

The mystery murder case was being worked on by the detective when his partner picked up another clue. (Passive)

Future Progressive Tense (will) –

At 10:00 PM tonight, HBO will be airing the new Vice special. (Active)

At 10:00 PM tonight, the new Vice special will be airing on HBO. (Passive)

I hope that this blog post has made clear when to use the passive voice and under which circumstances can its usage best be applied. As an English language learner, you’ll need to be comfortable with using both the passive voice and the active voice in order to become a better English writer and speaker. Please use the examples given to better your understanding of this English topic as well as how the active and passive voices are set up in the past, the present, and the future tenses.