Passive Voice

Written by tutor Matthew P.

English sentences are usually composed in Subject-Verb-Object word order, for example, “The boy loves the girl.” The subject is the noun or pronoun doing the action (in this case, the boy), the verb is the action itself (loves), and the direct object is that to which or whom the action is done (the girl). Writing a sentence in this manner utilizes what is called the active voice of the verb. However, in certain cases, which I shall explain below, a writer might wish to highlight the direct object of a certain action by using the passive voice.

For the purposes of demonstration, I shall take the sentence used in the prior example (The boy loves the girl.) and rewrite it in the passive voice. First, be certain that the verb of the sentence has a direct object (and is thus transitive), for verbs without direct objects (intransitive verbs) have no passive voice. In our example sentence, we have a direct object (the girl). Thus, we would state the direct object first. Then we would use the form of the verb “to be” that this noun or pronoun would take followed by the past participle of the verb: “The girl is loved.” The past participle is often the –ed form of the verb and the same as the past tense, but many English verbs are irregular in this form. If you are in doubt, always consult a dictionary. It is not necessary to indicate the subject actually doing the action, but if you wish to, the best way to do so is after the preposition “by.” Thus, our example sentence rewritten in the passive voice would be: “The girl is loved by the boy.”

One particular note should be made: do not confuse the passive voice with the perfect tense. While both forms use the past participle, the auxiliary verbs used are different: “to be” in the case of the passive voice and “to have” in the case of the perfect tense. Thus, in the sentence “The girl is loved,” it is somebody else doing the loving, while in the sentence “The girl has loved,” the girl herself has been the lover. To say “The girl has loved by the boy” would make no sense to an English speaker.

Moreover, the passive voice is not a tense. Tenses are used to indicate the time when the action of the sentence occurs: present, past, future, and so forth. Voices, on the other hand, have no indication of time in and of themselves, and so the passive voice can be used with any tense. Our model sentence, for instance, can be written in the past tense as “The girl was loved by the boy,” or in the future tense as “The girl will be loved by the boy.”

In writing, the use of the active voice is generally preferred. However, the passive voice is often very useful in its own right when the doer of an action is unknown, unclear, or unimportant. For example, in the sentence, “The store was robbed at 3:00 pm; police have no suspects at this time,” the robber is unknown to us, and so we use the passive voice. Likewise, in the sentence, “The letter was delivered yesterday,” it is unimportant and unnecessary to state that the postman delivered it, as this is implied. For these reasons, the passive voice is often used in newspapers. Also, the passive voice is often used in compound or complex sentences in order to avoid cumbersome constructions or restatements. To say “I gave the Smiths $300, some of which will be used by Mrs. Smith to pay her credit card bill” makes more sense than breaking it up into two simple sentences.

For further practice, try rewriting the following sentences in the passive voice:
1. Little strokes fell great oaks.
2. Cobblers make shoes.
3. Columbus discovered America.
4. The children saw the ship coming into the harbor.
5. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

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