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The Passive Voice

In English, most sentences can be written in two ways: in the active voice or in the passive voice. Active-voice sentences can contain a subject, a transitive verb, and an object.

  • Paul wrote the essay.
  • My sister reads my diary.

In a passive-voice sentence, the subject and object of an active-voice sentence switch positions; the active object becomes the subject of the passive sentence, and the active subject becomes the object of the preposition by. The verb from the active sentence is changed to a past participle and is used with the auxiliary be.

  • The essay was written by Paul.
  • My diary is read by my sister.

The meaning of these active and passive examples is essentially the same. They are simply two different ways of expressing the same action. Although the active voice is the way you learn to write correct complete sentences, the passive voice is common in written English, especially in formal academic writing, and in newspapers and magazines.

The passive voice occurs in all tenses and can even be used in a progressive tense. The following examples show active sentences and their corresponding passive formations.

SIMPLE PRESENTEric carries Pam.Pam is carried by Eric.
PRESENT PROGRESSIVEEric is carrying Pam.Pam is being carried by Eric.
SIMPLE PASTEric carried Pam.Pam was carried by Eric.
PAST PROGRESSIVEEric was carrying Pam.Pam was being carried by Eric.
PRESENT PERFECTEric has carried Pam.Pam has been carried by Eric.
PAST PERFECTEric had carried Pam.Pam had been carried by Eric.
SIMPLE FUTUREEric will carry Pam.Pam will be carried by Eric.
FUTURE PERFECTEric will have carried Pam.Pam will have been carried by Eric.
“be going to” FORMEric is going to carry Pam.Pam is going to be carried by Eric.

When a sentence is changed from active to passive, the tense of the active sentence is retained in the passive sentence.

Patrick paints a picture.A picture is painted by Patrick.
Samantha is teaching the class.The class is being taught by Samantha.
Robin borrowed a dollar.A dollar was borrowed by Robin.
Tyler has seen this episode.This episode has been seen by Tyler.
Alicia will prepare a salad.A salad will be prepared by Alicia.

Sentences that cannot be written in the passive voice

Only transitive verbs—verbs followed by an object—can be used in the passive. It is not possible to use intransitive verbs, such as happen, sleep, come, go, live, occur, rain, rise, depart, walk, and seem, in the passive.

Marie helped Peter.Peter was helped by Marie. (TRANSITIVE VERB)
The baby slept soundly.– (INTRANSITIVE VERB)
The student came to class.– (INTRANSITIVE VERB)

Forming the passive voice without a by phrase

The passive is often used when it is unimportant to know who or what performs the action. In the sentence “Coffee is grown in Colombia,” we are informed where coffee is grown. Yet the coffee could be grown by villagers, by children, by immigrants, or by any other group of people. Following are examples that illustrate the most common ways of using the passive voice without a prepositional phrase introduced with by.

  • Rice is grown throughout Asia.
  • That car was built in the 1930s.
  • This watch was imported from Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Poor Mr. Lowry is going to be fired!

When the subject of an active sentence is some vague entity (they, someone, people), it is common to avoid using a by phrase in the passive.

ACTIVEThey cultivate grapes in southern France.
PASSIVEGrapes are cultivated in southern France.

By is used in the passive when it is important to inform the reader or listener who is responsible for the action: “Perfume was written by Patrick Süskind.” In this case, it is important to know that a specific author (and not just any author) wrote this particular book.

As a general rule, if the writer knows who performs the action, it’s preferable to use the active voice: “My neighbor made the strawberry pie.” Stylistically, the writer could use the passive, but it would mean that he or she is trying to direct the reader’s attention to the new subject: “The strawberry pie was made by my neighbor.”

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