Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Passive Voice

The Passive Voice: grammar rules, explanations and examples.

The Formation of the Passive Voice

auxiliary verb to be + Participle II 
A passive verb form is made with the auxiliary verb to be (in the different tenses) and the past participle of the main verb.
Affirmative Interrogative Negative
I am told.
She is told.
He is told.
It is made.
We are told.
You are told.
They are told.
Am I told?
Is she told?
Is he told?
Is it made?
Are we told?
Are you told?
Are they told?
I am not told.
He is not told.
She is not told.
It is not made.
We are not told.
You are not told.
They are not told.

The subject of a passive verb is usually the person or thing that is affected be the action of the verb. 
I wrote this letter. (Active) → This letter was written by me. (Passive)

Structural Patterns of Passive Sentences

  • Subject + Predicate (auxiliary verb 'to be' + Participle II) + Adverbial Modifier
  • Subject + Predicate (auxiliary verb 'to be' + Participle II) + by + Object
Key examples:
The book was sold yesterday.
The book was bought by my wife.

Passive verb-forms

Passive verb-forms are made with the different tenses of 'to be', followed by a past participle (e. g.: is broken, was told, has been built, will be done; corresponding active verbs forms are: breaks, told, has built, will do). The tenses, and the rules for their use, are the same as for active verb-forms.

  Indefinite Continuous Perfect
Present Many interesting educational programs are shown on TV every day . A very interesting football game is being shown on TV. The new factory hasn’t been completed yet.
Past A very interesting basketball game was shown on TV last night. An ice hockey game was being shown on TV when he returned home. The minister said that over a hundred new schools had been built in the country the year before.
Future An important football game will be shown on TV tomorrow. --- The factory will have been completed (or will be completed) by the end of the year.
► Note, that future continuous and perfect continuous passive tenses are very uncommon; since we avoid saying 'be being' and 'been being'.

The Passive Voice is used when we are more interested in the action than in the agent or when the doer of the action is unknown.

For study:
  1. English is spoken here.
  2. Seats are booked beforehand.
  3. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  4. Marriages are made in heaven.
  5. Rome was not built in a day.
  6. The film is being discussed by everybody.
  7. I felt as if I was being watched.
  8. Has Sam been told?
  9. After the actors had been chosen the work on the film began.
  10. You will be told in advance.
  11. Everything will have been done by the 1st of April.


(Passive: by + agent)
The noun or pronoun following the preposition 'by' is called 'the agent'.
The agent in a passive sentence is the same person or thing as the subject of an active sentence.
  • Herman Melville [subject] wrote "Moby Dick". → "Moby Dick" was written by Herman Melville [agent]. 
  • His wife met him at the airport. → He was met at the airport by his wife.
The agent denotes the person or thing that performs the action of the verb:
  • He was shot by a policeman
  • The parcel was sent by me
  • "Mona Liza" was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.
The agent is only expressed when it is important to say who or what something is done by. In most passive sentences, there is no agent:
  • He was met at the airport. 
  • He was shot yesterday.
  • A new bridge has just been built.
The by-phrase describing the agent should not be confused with a phrase beginning with ‘with’ which describes what is used to carry out the action of the verb. The noun following the preposition 'with' is called the "instrument":
  • He was shot with a revolver [instrument].

Passive: verbs with two objects

A lot of verbs, such us 'give', 'show', 'send', can be followed by two objects, which usually refer to a person and a thing.
  • She gave me [1] a new magazine [2] yesterday.
When these verbs are used in the passive voice, there are two possibilities:
  • A new magazine was given to me [1] (by her) yesterday.
  •  I was given a new magazine [2] (by her). 

Verbs which cannot be used in the passive

Not all verbs can have passive forms. Intransitive verbs (like 'die', 'go', 'arrive') cannot become passive; they have no objects, and so there is nothing to become the subject of a passive sentence.

The transitive verb 'have', in the sense of 'to own' or 'to possess', cannot be made passive:
  • Sam had a new car. (But not: A new car was had by Sam.)

Other transitive verbs not used in the passive are 'stative' verbs (verbs which refer to states, not actions). Examples are: 'lack', 'resemble', 'suit', 'fit'. Most of them have no continuous (or progressive) forms, at least in certain of their meaning.

►The verb and particle of a phrasal verb stand together in a passive construction, even if are separated in the corresponding active construction:
  • They always laugh at her. (Active) → She is always laughed at. (Passive)
  • The scandal brought the government down. (Active)→ The government was brought down by the scandal. (Passive)