The Passive Voice

The normal construction of English sentences is Subject + Verb + Object. The subject is the performer of the action expressed by the verb while the object is the receiver of the action of the verb. In the sentence,

      John gave Sally a rose.

The subject, John, performed the action of the verb, gave,, and Sally is the receiver of the action. This type of sentence is called an active sentence, and the verb is called an active verb. Active sentences are said to be in the active voice. Sentences in the active voice give more energy to your writing by placing greater emphasis on the action of the subject than on the action of the object. There are times, though, that the action of the object is more important than the action of the subject. So, to remove the emphasis from the subject and place it on the object, we use the passive sentence construction.

NOTE: Only transitive verbs can be used in the passive voice.

In the passive voice, the normal sentence construction is reversed. The object becomes the subject of the sentence, and the subject is placed either in a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence, or left out all together.

      John gave Sally a rose. [Active sentence]

      Sally was given a rose (by John). [Passive sentence]

In the passive voice, Sally becomes the subject of the verb, was given, and the performer of the verb, John, is in a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. Notice that, as indicated by the parentheses, the performer, John, can be completely omitted from the sentence. The table below has more examples of passive voice sentences.

Subject Verb Prepositional phrase
to be verb main verb (PP) by performer
This course was taken by many freshmen.
Awards were received by the best actors.
The exams were supervised.
The bank was robbed.

Notice that in the passive voice the main verb is in the past participle form (PP) and comes after the to be verb. Passive sentences can also be contructed using the modals have to be or must be. By using these modals, passive sentences can be used to talk about future events.

      All cars must be inspected by an expert.

      All emergancies have to be reported to the proper authorities.

When to Use the Passive Voice

Active voice sentences are preferred in English because they are more direct and concise; therefore, passive voice sentences are not used as often in English as they are in other languages. There are instances, however, when the passive voice is preferred to the active voice. The following is an outline of when to use the passive voice:

  • When the performer of the action is not known.

    This vase was made in Japan.

  • When it is preferable not to mention the performer.

    I can't say who told me, but, I was told you lied to me.

  • When the object of an active sentence is more important than the subject.

    Marcus was kidnapped by his father.


  • When the work which resulted from the action is as well known or better known than the performer of the action. Such examples include cases of famous paintings, music, literature and inventions. In this type of sentence, the performer must always be included to complete the statement.

    Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare.

    The Mona Lisa was painted by de Vinci.

    The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

Practice

The sentences below are in the active voice. On a sheet of paper, rewrite the sentences in the passive voice. When you have finished, click the sentence to check your answers.

  • The lab attendants set up the equipment.

  • I give regular reading assignments.

  • Jim taught the new English class.

  • Beethoven composed the Moonlight Sonata.