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The passive in English – article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on approaches to teaching the passive in English.

Introduction

Actions described by verbs in English typically involve two people or things: the person or thing that performs the action (sometimes referred to as the agent), and the person or thing that is affected or produced by the action of the verb.

In English, the agent is often put at the beginning of a sentence or clause, in subject position. The person or thing affected or produced then forms the object of the verb. This is what we refer to as an active sentence, as illustrated below, where My uncle is the agent (subject) and this house is the object:

My uncle built this house twenty years ago.

In an active sentence, the focus is on the agent, the person or thing that performs the action (my uncle), placed at the beginning of the sentence. If however, we want to change the emphasis so that the sentence focuses on the person or thing affected or produced by the action, i.e. the object in the sentence above (this house), we use a passive form to bring that element of the sentence to the beginning, so that the sentence becomes:

This house was built by my uncle twenty years ago.


In the sentence above the passive form of the verb is underlined. It consists of a form of the verb be (i.e. was, in passive structures, be is always in the same tense as the equivalent active form of the verb) with the past participle of the verb (built).

In this passive version, the focus is on this house which is now at the beginning of the sentence in subject position. The agent, the person or thing that performs the action, is now later introduced by the preposition by.

It is, therefore, possible to talk about the same event in two different ways, depending on whether you want to focus on the person or thing that performs the action (the agent), or the person or thing affected or produced by the action. These two ways of formulating a sentence are often referred to as the active voice and the passive voice.

Using the passive voice also allows us the possibility of not mentioning the agent at all, so that the focus is purely on the person or thing affected or produced by the action of the verb, e.g.

This house was built twenty years ago.

There are various reasons why we may want to do this, often because the agent is unimportant or not even known, as in:

Juan's bike was stolen from the back garden.

Such examples are often referred to as agentless passive structures.

Agentless passives are sometimes used as a way of referring to 'people in general' as the agents, e.g.

The house can be visited between 9am and 5pm.

Or they are sometimes used because the agent has already been mentioned, e.g.

My uncle employed a team of builders, and the house was built in three months.

Some verbs such as give, offer, tell and show can occur with two objects, both a direct object and an indirect object, e.g.

The class gave Mrs Richardson a lovely bunch of flowers.

In these cases it is possible to make two passive sentences, depending on whether we want to focus on the direct object of the active sentence (a lovely bunch of flowers) or the indirect object (Mrs Richardson), e.g.

A lovely bunch of flowers was given to Mrs Richardson (by the class).
Mrs Richardson was given a lovely bunch of flowers (by the class).

Note:

If, as in the first example, we choose to make the direct object of an active sentence the subject of a passive sentence, then we introduce the indirect object (Mrs Richardson) after the passive verb (was given) with the preposition to.

Beginning the passive sentence by focusing on the person (the indirect object of the active sentence) is perhaps the more common of the two options. However, there are certain occasions where the indirect object can be left out altogether. Compare:

  • The three injections were given to the children at the same time.
  • The three injections were given at the same time.

Passive forms of reporting verbs

There are two special structures for forming the passive of reporting verbs like say. If we take a sentence such as:

They say that Ken is really good at Chinese cooking.

where they means 'people generally', then one passive version is:-

Ken is said to be really good at Chinese cooking.

Here we form the passive of the reporting verb say which is then followed by a to-infinitive (to be…).

However we can also create an alternative passive form by using an impersonal 'it' structure, e.g.

It is said that Ken is really good at Chinese cooking.

In this example, the passive reporting verb occurs in the 'it' structure which is then followed by a finite clause (Ken is really good at Chinese cooking).

Other typical reporting verbs used in this way are allege, expect and believe. These structures are particularly common in the impersonal style of news reports, e.g.

Interest rates are expected to rise sharply next month.

It is expected that interest rates will rise sharply next month.
Two of the men were alleged to have taken part in the robbery.
It was alleged that two of the men had taken part in the robbery.

Passive forms of phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs consisting of a transitive verb (a verb which takes a direct object) and an adverb or preposition can be used in the passive. Note that the adverb or preposition always comes after the past participle, e.g.

Water and electricity supplies were cut off.
You'll have to wait until this problem has been dealt with.

In the same way, three-part phrasal verbs consisting of a transitive verb with an adverb and a preposition can be used in the passive, e.g.

These stupid regulations should have been done away with years ago.

Passive forms with modal verbs

The passive can be used with modal verbs like can, must, etc and expressions like have to or used to. The pattern used is:

modal verb + ( be or have been ) + past participle, e.g.

  • Two tablets must be taken twice a day.
  • The house can be visited between 9am and 5pm.
  • The train might have been delayed by bad weather.
  • The room used to be cleaned every day.
  • The sheets had to be changed.

Verbs which are not used in the passive

Intransitive verbs (verbs which do not occur with a direct object) can never be passive. There is, therefore, no passive version of sentences like:

Jamie arrived early.
A dreadful thing happened yesterday.
The wall fell down.

Reflexive verbs, whose object is a reflexive pronoun referring back to the subject (the agent of the action), can never be made passive. Therefore a sentence such as:

She blames herself for what happened.

would never be reformulated as a passive such as

*Herself was blamed (by her) for what happened.

Some important state verbs cannot be passive, e.g. be, exist, have (when it means 'own'), lack, seem. There is, therefore, no passive version of sentences like:

The room seemed small.
Tom has a new computer.

Note however that there are some verbs referring to states which can be made passive, possibly because they more straightforwardly refer to the thing or person affected (the object of an active sentence), e.g.

A millionaire businessman owned the land.
The land was owned by a millionaire businessman.
A high fence surrounded the garden.

The garden was surrounded by a high fence.

Overview of passive and active verb forms

 ActivePassive
Present simpleThey play musicMusic is played
Present continuousThey're playing musicMusic is being played
Present perfectThey have played musicMusic has been played
Past simpleThey played musicMusic was played
Past continuousThey were playing musicMusic was being played
FutureThey will play music
They are going to play music
Music will be played
Music is going to be played
Future perfectThey will have played musicMusic will have been played

 

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