The English language may seem to be fairly simple for a first language speaker, but when it comes to explaining the different parts of speech and their uses, even experienced speakers may find that that are at a loss for words. This is where a simple guide will come in handy – whether you are learning English or teaching it to someone else, the simple guide series will tell you everything you need to know. This one deals with the passive voice.

What is the passive voice?

In English there are two types of voices: the active and the passive. Each one is used depending on where we would like to place focus in a sentence.

Active voice: John stepped on the mat.

Passive voice: The mat was stepped on by John.

Notice that the person doing the action takes the focus when the active voice is used, whereas the recipient of the action takes the focus when using the passive voice. The two types of voices therefore swop subjects and objects to change their main emphasis.

When using the passive voice, the person or thing performing the action does not even need to be mentioned e.g.

The mat was stepped on (we do not need to include "by John")

When is the passive voice used?

We use the passive voice for two reasons:

1. When we don't know who the person, animal, thing or group performing the action is e.g.

The traffic light on the corner was knocked over (we do not know who or what knocked it over)

All the food has been eaten (we do not know who ate it)

2. When we want to place specific emphasis on a person, animal, thing or group e.g.

Gladiator was directed by Ridley Scott (Emphasis is on the movie "Gladiator")

Ridley Scott directed Gladiator (Emphasis is on the director "Ridley Scott")

How is the passive voice formed?

When converting the active voice into the passive voice, the tense stays the same. The passive voice always takes the following form:

Auxiliary verb "be" + Past Participle (+by)

Note: "by" is placed in brackets as it is optional, a passive sentence often does not need the doer of the action to be explicitly mentioned.

When using the active voice, the main verb indicates what tense is being used. When using the passive voice, the auxiliary verb "be" is used to show what tense is being used.

Each tense uses a different form of the auxiliary verb "be", as follows:

Present Simple = is/are + past participle (+by)

I eat cake = Cake is eaten (by me)

Present Continuous = is/are being + past participle (+by)

They are running a marathon = A marathon is being run (by them)

Present Perfect = has been/have + present participle (+by)

He has eaten the apple = The apple has been eaten (by him)

Past Simple = was/were + past participle (+by)

He drank coffee = Coffee was drunk (+by him)

Past Continuous = was/were being + past participle (+by)

Sally was rowing the boat = The boat was being rowed (by Sally)

Past Perfect = had been + past participle (+by)

I had read the book = The book had been read (by me)

Future Simple = will be + past perfect (+by)

John will take it = It will be taken (by John)

Future Continuous = will be being + past perfect (+by)

She will be teaching English = English will be being taught (by her)

Future Perfect = will have been + present participle (+by)

I will have run the race = The race will have been run (by me)

Note: The perfect continuous tenses cannot be used in the passive voice. For more on tenses, see The Simple Guides to Present, Past and Future Tenses. For more on auxiliary verbs, see The Simple Guide to Verbs. For more on participles, see The Simple Guide to Participles.

Adding the "doer"

When using the passive voice, it is not always necessary to add the doer – but when the doer is include, the form must sometimes be changed. When the doer is a pronoun; the form of the doer remains the same e.g.

John kicked the ball = The ball was kicked by John

When the doer is a pronoun; the form of the doer usually changes e.g.

They built a wall = A wall was built by them

When being converted to the passive voice, the following pronouns change their form:

He = Him

He took the blue car = The blue car was taken by him

She = Her

She ate the whole thing = The whole thing was eaten by her

They = Them

They made this mess = This mess was made by them

I = Me

I delivered the new stock = The new stock was delivered by me

We = Us

We fixed the old boat = The old boat was fixed by us

Transitive and intransitive verbs

Only transitive verbs can be used in the passive voice. Transitive verbs are followed by an object (hit, steal, kick, lift, build, scrape, paint etc.) e.g.

He hit the ball (The ball was hit), she kicked the pole (The pole was kicked)

Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive voice, they cannot be followed by an object (die, sleep, been, come, seen etc) e.g.

He died in his sleep (We cannot say "In his sleep was died by him"), I have been there (We cannot say "There has been by me")

For more on transitive verbs, see The Simple Guide to Verbs.

Keep it simple

As with any aspect of the English language, the best way to learn (and explain) the passive voice is to take one part at a time and practice it thoroughly. Once a learner or teacher has a thorough understanding of auxiliary verbs and the English tense system, learning the passive voice will be far easier. In the beginning, memorizing all the rules may be necessary, but by taking things one step at a time – experience will soon take over.