The Active Versus Passive Voice in the English Language

The typical English sentence is structured SVO (subject + verb + object). In an active sentence, the subject is the doer* or agent of the verb. When the subject is the doer of the verb, the voice is active. For example, in the active sentence Julie ate the pizza, Julie does the action.

Sometimes we don’t want to include the doer in the sentence. In that case, we can change the structure of the sentence to the passive voice. In a passive sentence, the subject is no longer the doer. We often omit the doer, but it can be included after the preposition ‘by’. Here are 4 examples:
    1. Passive: I was hit by a car.
      • Active: A car hit me.
    2. Passive: My wallet was stolen.
      • Active: Someone stole my wallet.
    3. Passive: Corn is grown in Iowa (by farmers).
      • Active: Farmers grow corn in Iowa.
    4. Passive: The contract was sent to the wrong person.
      • Active: Linda in HR sent the contract to the wrong person.

    ‘But why?’ you might ask. There are several reasons why we might prefer to use the passive:
    1. The object is more important/relevant than the subject.
      • In example 1 above, I hope I am more important than the car that hit me! By using a passive sentence, I focus on myself rather than the car. In this way, the passive is often used to discuss injuries.
    2. We don’t know who the doer is.
      • In example 2, I didn’t see who stole my wallet.
    3. The doer doesn’t need to be mentioned, because it is understood/implied.
      • In example 3, the topic is the corn rather than the farmers who grow it. We know farmers grow crops, so we don’t have to include the doer. In this way, the passive can be used to discuss production and manufacturing.
    4. It may be more polite not to name the doer.
      • In example 4, naming Linda might embarrass her, so we can use the passive instead to focus on the situation rather than the person at fault.

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    So how do you make a passive sentence? The structure of the passive is ‘be’ + past participle. You will need to conjugate ‘be’ according to the appropriate tense. Here are some examples of the passive in different tenses:
    1. Simple past: Paper was invented in China.
    2. Future: Dinner will be served at 8:00.
    3. Present continuous: A new highway is being constructed just outside the city.
    4. Present perfect: The plants have not been watered today.

    (Just for fun, you could ask yourself these questions: ‘Who is the doer of each sentence? Why isn’t the doer included in the sentence?)

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    Now that you know the basics of the passive, you’ll need to consider one more thing: transitive versus intransitive verbs. A transitive verb uses a direct object. For example, in the sentence I broke the glass, the glass is a direct object because it is directly affected by the verb broke.

    An intransitive verb doesn’t use a direct object. For example, in the sentence I was sleeping, the verb sleep doesn’t use a direct object. You don’t sleep something; you just sleep! Keep in mind that an intransitive verb can use an indirect object. I was sleeping in my bed. (An indirect object usually comes after a preposition, like in.) But still, there is no direct object in the sentence.

    How does this relate to the passive? Remember that in a passive sentence, the object takes the place of the doer. Therefore, you need a direct object in order to use the passive. Since an intransitive verb doesn’t use a direct object, an intransitive verb can’t be used in a passive sentence.
    • Active: A car hit me.
      • Passive: I was hit by a car.
      • This works because ‘hit’ is transitive.
    • Active: Something funny happened (no object).
      • Passive: It was happened something funny.
      • This is a common mistake. Happen is intransitive, so it can’t be used in the passive.
    • Active: I slept in my bed (indirect object).
      • Passive: My bed was slept in by me.
      • This passive sentence is technically correct, but you won’t often hear indirect objects used with the passive.

    How do you know if a verb is transitive or intransitive? A good dictionary should tell you. Some verbs can be both transitive and intransitive depending on the usage.
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    Students often ask:
    *What do you mean by ‘doer’? A doer (pronounced do-er) is someone who does an action. Someone who teaches is a teacher; someone who does is a doer. Fun fact: If someone says you’re a ‘doer’, it can mean that you’re an efficient person who gets things done rather than just talking about it.

    Sometimes I hear people say “I got hit” instead of “I was hit”. Why? Sometimes you can use ‘get’ instead of ‘be’ as a more casual way of speaking in the passive. This form works best with actions that happen suddenly or unexpectedly. For example, I got fired or I got hurt playing soccer. NOT: Paper got invented in China, because inventions don’t happen in a sudden, unexpected way.

    I heard that we should avoid using the passive, especially in writing. It’s true that we don’t want to use the passive too much. Most of the time it’s helpful to know who or what did the action of the verb. But it’s perfectly normal to use the passive occasionally.

    Practice: Imagine that you work for a vacation resort, and you are trying to attract visitors. Briefly describe the location and then use the passive to write about the services and features of the resort. Try to use a variety of tenses in the passive.

    • You are invited to…
    • The resort is located…
    • Our luxury hotel has been awarded…
    • You will be picked up at the airport in a…
    • All meals are prepared by…
    • You will be taken to…

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