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How to Use the Passive Voice – Video Lesson

by Oli Redman on 27 October, 2016 , No comments

Do you know what the passive voice is, how to form the passive, and when you should use the passive in English? In this lesson, you can learn about the passive voice in English. You can see what it is, how to form it, and how to use it.

What is the passive voice? Look at these sentences:

  • This dish is made with eggs and cheese.
  • The car was badly damaged in the accident.
  • Their house looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for months.

All of these examples use the passive voice. Can you see how and why?

Let’s start with the basics:

1. How You Can Form the Passive Voice

Look at our three example sentences:

  • This dish is made with eggs and cheese.
  • The car was badly damaged in the accident.
  • Their house looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for months.

They look quite different, but they all contain the passive. What do the three sentences have in common?

All three sentences contain the verb be and a past participle (also called the 3rd form). This is how to make the passive:

  • be + past participle

Let’s look at some different examples:

  • Football is played all over the world.
  • This project will be finished by Friday.
  • The letters were sent to all customers last week.

You can see the same pattern: all passive sentences contain the verb be and a past participle.

So why do the sentences look so different?

2. How to Use the Passive Voice in Different Tenses

What do you do if you want to make a passive sentence past, or future, or present perfect? What changes?

Look at our last three examples again:

  • Football is played all over the world.
  • This project will be finished by Friday.
  • The letters were sent to all customers last week.

Remember that the passive is made of two parts: be plus a past participle. Which part changes, and which part stays the same?

The answer: you can change the verb be to use different tenses and times. The past participle never changes. Whether you’re talking about the past, the present, or the future, the past participle stays the same.

Let’s look:

  • Past: The letters were sent to all customers last week.
  • Present: The letters are sent to all customers every week.
  • Pres. perf.: The letters have been sent to all customers this week.
  • Future ‘will’: The letters will be sent to customers next week.

There are also passive infinitives with to:

  • The letters need to be sent to all customers.

There are passive –ing forms:

  • Many customers like being sent regular newsletters.

The passive has many forms, but in every form you can see the same pattern: be plus a past participle, and the verb be changes to give the form. The past participle never changes, in any form of the passive!

OK, now you know the most important points about how the passive is formed, but why do we use the passive? How do you know when to use it?

Let’s look!

3. Using the Passive to Change Emphasis

Look at two sentences:

  • Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.
  • The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

The first sentence is active, and the second is passive. What difference does using the passive make here?

If you’re not sure, think about this question: which is the most important idea in each sentence?

In the first sentence:

  • Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

We’re more interested in Leonardo da Vinci. In the second sentence:

  • The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

We’re more interested in the Mona Lisa.

In English, putting an idea at the beginning of a sentence shows that it is more important. We can use the passive to change the emphasis of a sentence, and show what you think is the most important idea.

Let’s do one more example:

  • People all over the world play basketball.
  • Basketball is played by people all over the world.

In the first (active) sentence, we’re talking about people, and what they do. In the second (passive) sentence, we’re saying something about basketball. Again, using the passive changes the emphasis of the sentence.

However, this is not the only reason you might use the passive.

4. Using the Passive when the Subject is Unknown or Unimportant

Look at some examples:

  • My bike was stolen.
  • The kitchen has been cleaned today.
  • She was arrested for shoplifting.

Why do you think we use the passive in these three cases?

In all of these examples, we either don’t know or don’t care who did the action.

My bike was stolen—by whom? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact that it was stolen.

The kitchen has been cleaned today—by whom? It doesn’t matter. We only care about the fact that it happened, and that the kitchen is now clean.

She was arrested—by whom? By the police, of course! We don’t care exactly who arrested her. We know that the police arrested her, and in any case we’re only interested in the fact that she was arrested.

In all of these cases, we only care about the action itself. We don’t know or care who did it. This is another common reason to use the passive.

There’s one more common reason to use the passive:

5. Using the Passive to Sound Impersonal

What’s the difference between these two examples?

  • You need to do this by the end of the week.
  • This needs to be done by the end of the week.

If someone (for example, your boss), says this to you, the basic meaning is the same. So how are the sentences different?

The second sentence, with the passive, is more indirect and more impersonal. This is because it avoids the use of You need to… in the first sentence.

Using the passive in this way can help you to sound more formal and polite. Saying:

  • You need to do this by the end of the week.

Is very direct. It sounds like an order, which could be rude in some situations.

Let’s look at another example:

  • You need to find a solution to this quickly.
  • A solution needs to be found quickly.

Again, the active sentence is more direct, while the passive sentence is more impersonal and indirect, because it avoids the use of you. Like the previous example, this sounds more formal, and possibly more polite.

OK, so now you know how to form the passive, and the most common ways to use it, but there’s one more important point.

6. When NOT to Use the Passive

Many problems English learners have with the passive happen because they overuse the passive.

Here’s the important point:

Don’t use the passive if you don’t have a good reason to.

So if you use the passive, especially when you’re writing, think about why you’re using it.

Do you need to use it to change the emphasis of your sentence? Do you need to sound more formal and impersonal? Do you want to focus on the action, instead of whoever did the action?

If not, don’t use the passive. Using the passive makes your sentences longer and more complicated. This isn’t good unless it’s necessary.

7. Review

Let’s review what you’ve learned in this lesson.

Form the passive with the verb be and a past participle. Change the verb be to give different tenses, but you can never change the past participle.

Use the passive to change the emphasis of a sentence, if you want to focus on an action itself, instead of who did the action, or if you want to sound more impersonal and indirect.

Don’t use the passive unless you have a reason to do so.

Now, you should understand how to form and use the passive in English.

That’s the end of the lesson. I hope it was interesting for you!

 

Passive Voice Quiz

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Oli RedmanHow to Use the Passive Voice – Video Lesson