How to use the passive voice

The passive voice can be difficult to understand.
We create passive sentences with be + past participle

The passive voice can be confusing when you are learning English. It can be confusing because it seems to mix two different tenses.

An example of a confusing sentence is:

  • The computer is broken.
The above sentence is confusing because it combines the verb “be”( in present tense) and the verb “break” (in its past participle form). The University of Ottawa has a complete description of what a participle is here. Check out the verb tense overview for more on tenses.

So how do we use the the passive voice?

We use the passive voice when:

  • We don’t know who did an action
  • It is unimportant who did the action
  • We don’t want to identify who did an action
We create sentences in the passive voice by using be + past participle. A passive voice example is:
  • e.g. The old house was built by Bob.
You don’t have to add the “by Bob” part of the sentence.
  • e.g. The old house was built.
We can leave out the “by part” because we either don’t know, or we don’t want to identify who did the action.
The verb “be” will change based on what tense it is used in.
  • e.g. The old house was built. > Simple past
  • e.g. The computer is broken. > Simple present
  • e.g. The computer will be fixed. > Simple future
A practical example of how to use the passive voice in the office is:
  • The presentation will be finished by Monday.
In this example, the person is likely telling their boss that someone will finish the presentation, but they don’t know who will finish it.
If you are looking for active voice vs passive voice chart, check out this post.
Can you think of any other ways that the passive voice could be used in the office?



Active vs Passive

This is an example of Active vs Passive

Active vs passive can get confusing sometimes. I have broken it down to clarify the difference between the two.

When do you use active?

You would use active when

  1. You know who performed the action
  2. You want to focus on who did the action

e.g.: Bob built the house.

The active verb tense is often called active voice

When do you use passive?

There are couple reasons why you would use passive voice.

  1. You don’t know who performed the action
  2. You don’t want to name who did an action
  3. You don’t know the gender of the person who performed the action

You form a passive sentence with be + past participle

  • e.g. The house was built by Bob.

The passive verb tense  is often called passive voice.

For more on the passive voice check out this post.

What is the difference between Active and Passive?

The primary difference is where the focus is. Let’s look at our examples.

Bob built the house. (Active)

  • In this example ‘Bob’ is our subject and ‘the house’ is the object.

The house was built by Bob. (Passive)

  • In this example ‘the house’ is our subject and ‘Bob’ is our object

So what happens is that your Subject in active becomes your object in passive and vis versa.

What are some common problem areas?

People often confuse passive with the past.  Because you form a sentence with be + participle, it can be confused with the past.

  • e.g. The car is broken.

In this example ‘broken’ is the past participle of break, therefore, some people may assume that the sentence is past. However, it is the ‘is’ in the sentence that dictates the verb tense.

Have any questions or comments? Leave a comment below.

This is a cross post from another site that I run.