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How to Use the Passive Voice – Video

by Oli Redman on 27 October, 2016 , No comments

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 the passive voice to build passive sentences in English.

QUIZ: Using the passive

Now, test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying
this quiz. You can get help with some questions if you press ‘Hint’. You will
get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all
the correct answers.

Let’s start with the basics. 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 look.

1. How You Can Form the Passive Voice

In a regular, active sentence, you start with a subject, then you add a verb, which often has an object. For example:

  • A dog bit me when I was five.

Can you find the subject, verb and object in this sentence? For a review of these, watch our English Sentence Structure lesson!

  • A dog [subj.] bit [vb.] me [obj.] when I was five.

To make the sentence passive, the subject and object change places:

  • I was bitten by a dog when I was five.

How to Use the Passive Voice - dog in a striped shirt

When you make a sentence passive, you only change the subject, verb and object. Everything else stays the same. In this example, ‘when I was five’ isn’t part of the subject-verb-object structure, so it’s the same whether the sentence is active or passive. Next, let’s see how to form the passive voice. Look at three sentences from the start of the lesson again.

  • 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 different, but they all contain the passive. What do the sentences have in common? All three sentences contain the verb ‘be’ and a past participle—also called the 3rd form. This is what you need to form passive sentences. Let’s do some practice! Can you add the missing verbs to these three sentences?

  • Football is (play) all over the world.
  • This project will be (finish) by Friday.
  • The letters were (send) to all customers last week.

If you’re not sure, remember the rule from before: you need ‘be’ plus a past participle. Here, you need to put the verbs into the past participle form. Pause the video and think about your answers. Ready? Here are the full sentences.

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

Here’s a question: these sentences contain the verb ‘be’, but it’s different in each sentence. Do you know why? Let’s look together!

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. What changes, and what 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 see how this works:

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

Of course, there are other possible forms, but the idea is the same. There are also passive infinitives with ‘to’:

  • The letters need to be sent to all our customers.

And, there are passive –ing forms:

  • Many customers like being sent regular newsletters.

You can see the same pattern every time: ‘be’ plus a past participle, and the verb ‘be’ can change to show different times or forms. The past participle never changes, in any form of the passive! Let’s do a quick test. Look at a sentence:

  • This problem (be) solved by our IT team.

Your job is to write five different versions of this sentence.

  1. Write the sentence in the present simple.
  2. Make it present continuous.
  3. Make it past simple.
  4. Make it present perfect.
  5. Make it future with ‘going to’.

Pause the video, and write your sentences. You’ll see the answers in a few seconds.

Ready? Here are the answers.

  1. This problem is solved by our IT team.
  2. This problem is being solved by our IT team.
  3. This problem was solved by our IT team.
  4. This problem has been solved by our IT team.
  5. This problem is going to be solved by our IT team.

How did you do? Could you write the five sentences correctly? If you could, then well done! If not, then you can review this section and try to work out why you made mistakes.

OK, now you know the most important points about how the passive is formed, but why do you use the passive?

3. When to Use the Passive Voice

How to Use the Passive Voice - check mark

There are three common reasons to use the passive voice.

One: you want to change the emphasis of your sentence.

Two: the subject of your sentence is unknown or unimportant.

Three: you want to sound more impersonal or indirect.

Let’s look at these one by one. First, use the passive to change the emphasis of your sentence. 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’s the difference? If you’re not sure, think about this: which is the most important idea in each sentence? In the first sentence, you’re more interested in Leonardo da Vinci. In the second sentence, you’re more interested in the Mona Lisa. In English, putting an idea at the beginning of a sentence shows that it’s more important. You can use the passive to change the emphasis of a sentence, and show what you think is the most important idea. Secondly, use the passive when the subject is unknown or unimportant. What does that mean? Let’s look:

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

Why do you think you use the passive in these three cases? In these examples, you 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 matter. What matters is the fact that it was stolen. I don’t have my bicycle any more.

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

She was arrested—by whom? By the police, of course! You don’t care exactly who arrested her. You know that the police arrested her, because it’s obvious from the context. No one else can arrest people. In these sentences, you only care about the action itself. You don’t know or care who did it. There’s one more common reason to use the passive: to sound impersonal.

Here’s a question: 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 says this to you, the basic meaning is the same. So what’s different? The second sentence, with the passive, is more indirect and impersonal. This is because it avoids the words ‘You need to…’ which appear 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. Now you know how to form the passive, and the most common ways to use it, but there’s one more important point.

4. When NOT to Use the Passive

How to Use the Passive Voice - x image

Many problems English learners have with the passive happen because they overuse it. Here’s the important point: don’t use the passive if you don’t have a good reason to. 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. First, it’s inefficient, because you’ll need more words to express the same ideas. Second, it makes your writing harder to read.

Let’s do some quick practice. You’re going to see five sentences. For each one, you should decide if it’s necessary to use the passive or not. Here are the five sentences:

  1. We were asked by our friends to bring a dessert for the party.
  2. The proposed policy is strongly supported by conservative voters.
  3. It was decided not to follow the recommendations outlined in the report.
  4. A variety of measures could be taken to diminish the detrimental effects of global warming.
  5. The website will be finished and ready to launch by the end of the month.

What do you think? Are these good examples of using the passive, or not? Remember that to use the passive, you need a good reason. If there’s no reason, don’t use it. Pause the video if you want more time to look at these. Otherwise, let’s look at the sentences together. In the first sentence, there’s no good reason to use the passive. Using the passive here only makes the sentence longer and more inefficient. The sentence should be active and direct:

  • Our friends asked us to bring a dessert for the party.

In the second sentence, you probably shouldn’t use the passive. You could argue that you use the passive here to emphasise the idea of ‘proposed policy’, but the words ‘proposed policy’ are vague, and if you haven’t defined the idea, then why emphasise it? Again, this sentence should almost certainly be active:

  • Conservative voters strongly support the proposed policy.

In the third sentence, there’s one possible reason to use the passive: to make the sentence more impersonal. Perhaps you don’t want to say exactly who decided to do this. In this case, using the passive is appropriate. The fourth sentence is a good example of passive misuse. The problem is that it’s easy to use the passive voice to make unclear, empty sentences. In this sentence, what exactly is the writer saying? ‘A variety of measures’ is so vague that it could mean anything. Making this sentence active won’t solve the problem; instead, you would need to be more specific and explain your ideas more precisely. By the way, this is common in IELTS Writing Task 2 essays. Again, it’s not a language problem; it’s an ideas problem. It’s possible to construct long, complicated sentences using the passive which don’t say anything, but this is bad writing and it certainly won’t help you in an exam like IELTS. The fifth sentence is a good example of using the passive. In this case, it’s not important who will finish the website; it’s important that this work will be finished by the end of the month.

Thanks for watching! [/vc_column_text]

 

Passive Voice Quiz

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Oli RedmanHow to Use the Passive Voice – Video