An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on approaches to teaching the passive in English.
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:
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:
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.
There are various reasons why we may want to do this, often because the agent is unimportant or not even known, as in:
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.
Or they are sometimes used because the agent has already been mentioned, e.g.
Passive forms of verbs with two objects
Some verbs such as give, offer, tell and show can occur with two objects, both a direct object and an indirect object, e.g.
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.
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:
where they means 'people generally', then one passive version is:-
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.
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.
It is expected that interest rates will rise sharply next month.
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.
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.
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:
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:
would never be reformulated as a passive such as
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:
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.
The garden was surrounded by a high fence.
Overview of passive and active verb forms
|Present simple||They play music||Music is played|
|Present continuous||They're playing music||Music is being played|
|Present perfect||They have played music||Music has been played|
|Past simple||They played music||Music was played|
|Past continuous||They were playing music||Music was being played|
|Future||They will play music
They are going to play music
|Music will be played
Music is going to be played
|Future perfect||They will have played music||Music will have been played|
Verbs and tenses
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The passive in English – article