Guest Post: The Passive Voice

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Part One

by Anne Bell

Can verbs sing? Not quite, but they do have voice. Two, in fact – the active voice and the passive voice. As we’ll see, the voice can really affect both the meaning and the feeling of your writing.

First, let’s look at the form.

  • The girl kicked the ball.

This is a regular, simple sentence in the active voice. You’ve got your subject, the girl, your verb in simple past, kicked, and your object, the ball. Easy-peasy. So what happens if we take that object and put it into the subject position, and likewise switch the subject’s position?

  • The ball… the girl 

So far so good. But what to use as the verb? We can keep the original, but with a slight change:

  • The ball was kicked by the girl. 

Hmm, interesting. How about if the original subject is dropped altogether?

  • The ball was kicked. 

What you’ve got there is the most common form of the passive voice.

The structure of the passive voice is straightforward. Once you’ve got a subject that can also be the object of a verb (more on that later), follow this with the be verb and the past participle.

What’s the past participle you say? It’s the third basic verb form, after the base form (listed in dictionaries) and the simple past form. It’s the same form that’s used with the perfect tenses. A few common ones are eat-ate-eaten, walk-walked-walked, sell-sold-sold. 

The passive can be formed with most tenses, it’s usually just a matter of adjusting the be verb. Here’s a sampling:

Active voice   Passive voice
The cat chases the mouse. The mouse is chased by the cat.
The cat chased the mouse. The mouse was chased by the cat.
The cat will chase the mouse. The mouse will be chased by the cat.
The cat is chasing the mouse. The mouse is being chased by the cat.
The cat has chased the mouse. The mouse has been chased by the cat.

As you can see, transforming the active voice into the passive voice is not complicated. So long as the main verb takes a direct object, just bring the object into the subject position, insert the appropriate tense of the be verb, and follow it with the past participle. Keeping the original subject in a by phrase is optional and depends on what you’re trying to convey with your writing.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where we’ll look at what verbs work and don’t work with the passive, the difference in meaning between the passive and active voice, and how you can control the tone of your writing with the passive and active voice.


Anne-bio

Anne is a passionate applied linguist with a decade of language instruction under her belt. She enjoys making the complex simple and the arcane accessible.

You can connect with Anne by email, or visit her blog. You can also check out her LinkedIn profile and her about me page.


Cat & mouse image: Om-nom-nomnivore @ deviantART

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9 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Passive Voice

  1. Thanks for all the kind words. Through my experience of teaching ESL, native English speakers often know the least about English grammar!

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