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Passive voice

Page history last edited by Béatrice H. Alves 14 years, 6 months ago




Meaning of the passive

The subject of any sentence is the subject because it is what we are mainly interested in.  It is what we are talking about.

In these sentences we are talking about an engine, a lot of tires, a meeting and some suppliers.

This engine was designed in 19366.

A lot of tires have been molded in this way.

The meeting will be held in the auditorium.

Several suppliers were contacted.

It is true that someone designed the engine, someone (or a lot of different people) molded the tires, someone (or some group) will hold the meeting, and someone contacted the suppliers. Our main interest is not in who or what performed the actions (design, mold, hold, contact). If we were talking about these people or things, we would use the active:

Rolls-Royce designed this engine in 1936.

Several manufacturers have molded tires in this way.

The human resource department will hold the meeting in the auditorium.

The purchaser contacted several suppliers.


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Uses of the passive

Who did?

The passive is especially useful when the originator (the doer) of the action is not just less important, but is actually very difficult or impossible to identify (specify):

Materials from the Earth’s interior are continually being brought to the surface.

The ocean floors are recycled into the Earth’s interior and are replaced in less than 200 million years.

It is difficult to say what brings the materials to the surface or what recycles and replaces them.



Putting important things first

There is an important difference of emphasis between the active and the passive when talking about the same situation. For example, we have an engineer called Brian who is, in theory, in charge of checking the new transformer. I can ask two questions:

A ‘Has Brian checked the new transformer?’ (active)

B ‘Has the new transformer been checked (yet)?’ (passive)

In question A, I want to know if the Brian has done what he is supposed to do. In question B, I simply want to know if the transformer is OK (no matter who might have checked it).



Formal, especially scientific, writing

The passive is used in serious and formal writing (and speaking), e.g. in descriptions in encyclopedias, reports of meetings, manuals, and in reporting experiments. For example:

A drop of bromine was placed in a gas-jar with a greased rim, and a similar jar was placed on top of it. A piece of paper was held behind the jars, and the results were observed….

The only other way to record the experiment is to use the doer as the subject: We placed… or I placed… or the engineer placed…



There are common examples of notices which use the passive:



Notice that the parts of to be are left out. (that are prohibited, are required).







Newspapers headlines are similar:



Reports and Suppositions

Expressions of the type THEY/PEOPLE + SAY/BELIEVE, etc., are frequently used in the passive in formal speaking and writing:

It is said that…. It is believed that…

A much more useful pattern is:
















TO (BE)…


PNG Airlines DHC-6-300 Twin Otter



to have crashed in Papua New Guinea yesterday, killing all 13 passengers and crew onboard

A faulty fuel pre-heater



to cause this problem with diesel engines.


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Construction of the passive

We form passive verbs with the different tenses of be (eg is, was, is being, have been) + past participle*.



Present simple

am/is/are + past participle

The weather report is updated every hour.

Present continuous

am/is/are + being + past participle

The aircraft is being serviced at the moment.

Past simple

was/were + past participle

This part was bolted a few minutes ago.

Past continuous

was/were + being + past participle

Hazardous substances were being stocked there.

Present perfect

has/have + been + past participle

The pilot has been notified.

Past perfect

had  + been + past participle

The controller had already been disciplined once for the same kind of event.


will + be + past participle

Operating procedures will be reviewed by the New York Airspace Working Group.

Future perfect

will + have + been + past participle

By 2015 wind turbines will have been placed at the tops of most tall towers.

w/ modals (present)


(modal) + be + past participle

The inlet grille should be kept free from obstructions

w/ modals (past)


(modal) + have + been + past participle

The aircraft may have been located by search parties
near the remote Kokoda airstrip



* Past participles are formed by adding -ed to the base form of regular verbs.  For the irregular verbs, they are found in the 3rd column of the list (Get the list here).


Get more examples  on this Active-Passive Tenses Chart  or from the English Page Tutorial.

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More on the passive voice on Passive Voice Plus.

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