Passive voice is one of the most challenging parts of the English grammar for a number of students, and often for a good reason. In some languages, passive voice is not used as often as in English or is used in a different way. For ESL students, the first difficult step is to determine whether active or passive would be suitable for a particular situation.
So, let’s start from here.
When do we use passive voice?
We use passive when we don’t know who the doer of a certain action is, or when the doer is not important. In passive, the accent is on the object and the action it has undergone, rather than on subject (the person doing the action). We are not interested in the subject but rather in what happens to the object. We use it to shift emphasis away from the subject to avoid mentioning the doer since we want to put the focus on the object.
An object of an active sentence becomes a subject in its passive form. Only transitive verbs (verbs that require an object) can be passivized since intransitive verbs don’t have an object that becomes subject of the passive sentence. We can form passive in any tense. Present Simple, Present Continuous, Present Perfect, Past Simple, Past Continuous, Past Perfect and Future Simple are the verb tenses that are most often used in the passive.
How do we form passive voice?
The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence:
He painted the house.
The house was painted.
The next step is to determine the verb tense in the active sentence:
We have taken the book. – “have taken” is Present Perfect
Then you put the verb “to be” in the verb tense from the active sentence, while the main verb from the active sentence is put into past participle (-ed for regular verbs and 3rd column for the irregular verbs):
The book has been taken.
Examples of the most frequently used tenses in active and passive:
Present Simple: They make cakes. – Cakes are made.
Present Continuous: She is reading a book. – A book is being read.
Present Perfect: We have seen the film. – The film has been seen.
Past Simple: He broke a window. – A window was broken.
Past Continuous: You were eating dinner. – Dinner was being eaten.
Past Perfect: He had drunk coffee. – Coffee had been drunk.
Future Simple: I will buy a phone. – A phone will be bought.
Present continuous vs. past continuous
Students mostly have problems when it comes to forming Present Continuous and Past Continuous Passive, namely when they have to put the verb “to be” into one of these two tense forms. They perceive auxiliary verbs in these two tenses (am, is, are, was, and were) as the main verb “to be” and the result is this:
A book is reading.
Dinner was eating.
The best way to deal with this is to explain that the verb “to be” is like any other verb – you wouldn’t use the verb play in Present Continuous like “I am”; you would add –ing onto the verb – I am playing. In the same way, you cannot just say “I am” for the Present Continuous of the verb “to be”, you also need to add –ing onto the main verb – I am being.
How to use passive voice
“My bike has been stolen!” – You don’t know who stole your bike, that’s why you use passive – the doer of the action is unknown.
“This house was built 100 years ago.” – Here the accent is on the object (the house); it is not important who built the house, the fact that the house is here for 100 years is more important.
How to choose between passive and active
Students are often confused when they get a sentence like this:
Painting _____________ (sell) at the moment.
They are confused as whether to use active or passive. The best way is to ask yourself whether you know who is performing the action denoted by the verb: Do you know who is selling? In this case, we don’t know – we only know what is being sold. Therefore, this sentence requires passive.
Unlike many other languages, in English passive is used quite often and it is very important for students to be able to use it in both writing and speaking. Fortunately, the passive voice in English mostly functions according to the set of rules given above, so once you get the hang of them, you’ll be more comfortable with using it in the required situations.