ACTIVE and PASSIVE VOICE
Verbs have two voices: an active voice and a passive voice. Voice as the form of a verb
shows whether the subject of the verb does the action (the active voice) or whether the action is
done to it (the passive voice). Accordingly, we can write a sentence in either of the two different
1. Active and Passive Voice
We can write a sentence in two different ways. We can do it by using the verb to indicate
whether the subject performs an action (active voice) or receives the action (passive voice). We
usually write active sentences. Why we want to write passive sentences is explained in Part 4.
The verb is in the active voice when the subject,which can be a person or thing performs the
Cats ate the fish. (Subject: cats; verb: ate: object: fish)
The doer of the action is the cats. The verb ate is in the active voice and is followed by
The verb is in the passive voice when the action is done to the subject.
The fish was eaten by cats. (Verb: eaten; subject: fish)
In this passive sentence, the subject is the fish. The subject in the active voice cats now
becomes the object of the verb eaten.
As can be seen, changing the active sentence into a passive voice causes the subject to
become the object, and the object become the subject. The verb phrase used in the passive
sentence is the verb to be followed by the past participle of the verb. The passive verb follows
the tense of the active verb. For example, if the active verb is in the simple present tense, the
passive verb too is in the simple present tense.
Only verbs that take on an object (transitive verb) can be a passive verb.
He runs away.
The boss feels tired today.
Each of the above three sentences does not have an object, so it’s not possible to
convert them into passive sentences.
In the passive sentence, we use the preposition by to be followed by the object. We use it to
show who or what does or has done the action. We can omit by and in most cases, it does not
affect the clarity of the meaning of the sentence. We use itwhenwethinkitisnecessary.
2. Tenses in the Passive
The use of a tense in a passive sentence must be the same as that in the active voice.
Active: The big monkey scratches the small monkey.
Passive: The small monkey is scratched by the big monkey.
Active: Their dog is chasing my cat.
Passive: My cat is being chased by their dog.
Active: The men have loaded the sheep onto trucks.
Passive: The sheep have been loaded onto trucks (by the men).
Active: My wife kicked me on my knee.
Passive: I was kicked on my knee (by my wife).
Active: The gang members were discussing the planned robbery.
Passive: The planned robbery was being discussed (by the gang members).
Active: The hunter had shot two wild boars.
Passive: Two wild boars had been shot by the hunter.
Active: The children will blow up these balloons.
Passive: These balloons will be blown up (by the children).
Active: She will be painting the doghouse.
Passive: The doghouse will be being painted (by her).
Active: The police will have questioned the suspects.
Passive: The suspects will have been questioned (by the police).
Active: He should/mustsell his car.
Passive: His car should/must be sold (by him).
We may be building a giant sandcastle.
A giant sandcastle may be being built (by us).
Active: A suicide bomber might/could have detonated the bomb.
Passive: The bomb might/could have been detonated by a suicide bomber.
3. Passive Sentence with Two Objects
A verb can have two possible passive voices when it takes two objects: a direct object and an
indirect object. Normally, it is the indirect object (the first object that appears first in an active
sentence) which becomes the subject of the passive sentence. We can however also use the
direct object as the subject.
Active: The salesman showed him (indirect object) a new computer (direct object). /
The salesman showed a new computer to him.
Passive: He was shown a new computer.
Passive: A new computer was shown to him.
Active: We lent Bob some money. / We lent some money to Bob.
Passive: Bob was lent some money.
Passive: Some money was lent to Bob.
Active: Jack sent Jill a birthday card.
Passive: Jill was sent a birthday card by Jack.
Passive: A birthday card was sent to Jill by Jack.
4. Reasons For and Against passive voice
We use the passive voice for the following reasons:
when we do no know who performs the action.
The bank was broken into last night.
when it is important to know who performs an action.
This beautiful oil painting was done by my grandmother.
when it is not important to know who did the action.
All these household wares were imported from Hong Kong.
when the action itself is more important than the doer.
The two siblings were killed in a road accident.
when we are interested only in what happened rather than who or what did it.
The 24-foot pythonwascaughtinthatvillage.
when we wish to emphasize the person or thing acted on rather than the one who
John waspresentedwith a braveryawardyesterday.
when we choose not to name the one who performed the action to cover up a
when it is felt necessary to evade responsibility by some people or organization.
Reasons for not using the passive voice
The passive voice uses too many words, and at times can be difficult to understand. The
active voice expresses in fewer words and is easy to understand. Writing tends to
become clearer when unnecessary words are not used.
Passive: The protesters were kicked, punched and handcuffed by the police
before they were taken away in the police van. (Words:19 / Characters: 93)
Active: The police kicked, punched and handcuffed the protesters before taking
them away in a police van. (16/82)
5. More on passive
The passive sentence requires a verb that has an object (transitive verb). The following
sentences show some verbs are both transitive and intransitive. The intransitive verb does not
take an object, so it does not allow the construction of a passive sentence.
Transitive: They laughed at me.
Transitive: My father was reading a newspaper.
Intransitive: My father was reading.
Sometimes, it is necessary to name the one who did the action. Not doing so can make no
sense to the passive sentence.
The match waswon.
My dog was knocked down.
The three sentences appear incomplete making it necessary to name the doers.
The match was won by Liverpool.
My dog was knocked down by a bus.
His leg was bitten by a snake.
Notices often make use of the passive voice.
Guests are advised not to leave their belongings unattended.
We need to be sure of what we say. If we are not certain of our facts, we can exercise caution
by using ‘It is said that … ‘, ‘Heissaid to be …. ‘.
It is said that sweets are the main culprits of obesity among children.
He is said to be the leader behind the kidnapping of the President’s son.
We can use get instead of auxiliary verb to be, especially in our everyday conversation.
I got cheated by the salesman (in place of I was cheated by the salesman).
Some verbs such as the reflexive verb are not used in the passive voice.
He would talk to himself when no one was around. (The word himself is a reflexive
Long hair really suits her. (Not: She is really suited by long hair.)
Some verbs are used more frequently in the passive than in the active.
He was born with a rare skin disease.
The species was doomed to extinction.