Passive Voice

There are two main grammatical voices in English: the active and the passive voice. This article will be exploring the passive voice

Passive Voice Passive Voice

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    But first, let's define grammatical voice:

    Grammatical voice refers to the relationship between the verb and the subject or object in a sentence affected by the verb. It tells us whether the subject of the sentence is actively performing an action, or is passive and receiving the action.

    Passive voice meaning

    In the passive voice, the subject or object is acted upon by the verb rather than the subject carrying out the verb. For example:

    • Passive voice = The verb acting upon the subject/object, e.g. 'The pizza was eaten before we arrived.'
    • Active voice = Subject carrying out the verb, e.g. 'They ate the pizza before we arrived.'

    Another way of looking at this would be to say that in the passive voice, the subject is passive. If something is passive, it doesn't do a lot, which is certainly the case in a passive sentence.

    If we take the example above, we don't get to know who ate the pizza; the pizza was just eaten. Comparing this with the active voice example, we learn that 'they' ate the pizza. In this example, the subjects 'they' actively eat the pizza as opposed to the pizza being eaten.

    Passive Voice Types of Grammatical Voice Study SmarterFig 1. The pizza was eaten, but who by?

    Don't worry if this sounds a little confusing; we'll go through it more and look at some more examples as the article goes on.

    Passive voice characteristics

    As we've already noted, the passive voice's standout characteristic is that the verb acts upon the subject or object rather than the subject executing the action verb. This is one of the best ways to distinguish between active and passive voices.

    Some other things to look for include:

    • Does the sentence contain a conjugated form of the verb -to be? (for example, 'The essay has been finished.' This sentence includes the past participle of the verb -to be, 'been'.)

    • Is there a past participle verb (a.k.a verb 3) in the sentence? (Past participles can be formed in a variety of ways, often by adding the suffix '-ed/d' or '-en' or, for irregular verbs, the spelling changes completely. Some examples of past participle verbs include; eaten, given, read, walked, thought, and been.

    If you're having trouble identifying past participles, consider this: participles are often words that can function as a verb or as an adjective. For example, the word 'diluted' (past participle of 'dilute') can also be an adjective in sentences such as 'This juice is quite diluted in flavour.' Using the pizza example from the top of this article, 'eaten' is the past participle of 'eat', which can also be used as an adjective to describe the state of the pizza, i.e. 'eaten' (rather than the pizza being whole or complete, for example).

    • Is there a direct or implied '-by'? (does the sentence tell us who or what is affected by the verb?)

    What does 'direct or implied -by' mean? When you read a sentence, can you tell who or what the verb impacts? For example, in the sentence 'James was drained', there's no reference to say or imply who or what has made James feel drained; he could just be tired.

    If we changed the sentence to something like 'James had been drained.', we then get a sense of an implied -by (that is, we are led to wonder what James was drained by). Alternatively, if we said 'James had been drained by the day's events.', we then have a direct -by, as we can see that the events of the day are what had drained James. These second two sentences are examples of the passive voice.

    Passive voice, Image of tired man, StudySmarter

    Fig 2. James had been drained

    Types of Passive Voice

    There are two types of passive voice, which we'll look at in this section. These are:

    • Short passive voice

    • Long passive voice

    Short passive voice

    Short passive voice is the more commonly used of the two types of passive voice and is often referred to as the 'agentless passive'. This other name sums up nicely what the short passive voice is all about.

    Essentially, the short passive voice has no agent.

    In the English language, an 'agent' is the noun, noun phrase, proper noun, or pronoun in a sentence that shows the reader who or what initiates or carries out the action in the sentence.

    For example, in the sentence 'Sally ate the pizza.', we can tell that Sally is the one who ate the pizza. Sally is the one carrying out the action in the sentence. Sally is the agent of the sentence. This sentence is written in the active voice. If we wanted to rewrite this sentence using the short passive voice, it would look something like:

    'The pizza was eaten.'

    or

    'The pizza has been eaten.'

    In these two examples, the agent (the person or thing that carries out the action) is absent.

    Long passive voice

    The long passive voice is similar to a sentence using the active voice. However, the structure of long passive sentences has some key differences from active sentences.

    The long passive voice is when the object becomes the subject of the sentence. What does this mean? Aren't the subject and the object the same thing? They can often be used in similar ways, but they are distinct grammatical features.

    The subject of a sentence is the word or phrase that controls or carries out the action (the verb) of the sentence. The 'agent' we mentioned earlier is the subject of a sentence.

    The object of a sentence is the word or phrase controlled or acted upon by the action (the verb) of the sentence. The object of a sentence also completes the action.

    For example, if we take the same sentence as we used in the short passive voice example, 'Sally ate the pizza.' Sally is the subject of the sentence (the one carrying out the action), 'ate' is the verb or the action, and 'the pizza' is the object, the phrase controlled by the action. The 'pizza' also completed the action by answering the question: "What did Sally eat?"

    That example was an instance of the active voice, but if we were to rewrite the sentence in the long passive voice, it would look something like:

    The pizza was eaten by Sally

    With this structure, the sentence becomes long passive because the object (the pizza) has become the subject, and the previous subject (Sally) has become the object.

    Passive Voice Examples

    Hopefully, those breakdowns of the different types of passive voice have helped your overall understanding of the passive voice. To give you some more context, we'll now look at some more examples of each kind of passive voice.

    Before we do that, here are some active voice sentences that we'll be changing into the passive voice:

    • The boys threw the ball through the window.

    • The President made promises.

    • The roofer has replaced the tiles.

    These are active sentences because they follow the typical structure of subject - verb - object (who carries out the action? - what is the action? - what is controlled by the action?)

    Short Passive Voice examples

    • The ball was thrown through the window.

    • Promises were made.

    • The tiles have been replaced.

    All of these examples include a form of the verb -to be, a past participle of the verb ('throw' and 'make' are irregular verbs), and an implied '-by'. These factors make them passive voice examples.

    What makes them examples of the short passive voice is that there is no agent. We cannot tell who has completed the action of each sentence.

    Get a piece of paper and a pen and try to think of five more short passive voice sentences. If you're unsure whether your sentences are short passive, see if there's an agent (someone or something carrying out the verb) in them (there shouldn't be).

    Passive voice, Image of a pinky promise, StudySmarter

    Fig 3. Promises were made

    Long passive voice examples

    • The ball was thrown through the window by the boys.

    • Promises were made by the President.

    • The tiles have been replaced by the roofer.

    All of these examples include a form of the verb -to be, a past participle, and a direct '-by' (that is, we are told who the action is carried out by, or in other words, these sentences do have an agent). These factors make them examples of the passive voice.

    What makes them long passive is that the object and the subject have switched places. If you look at the active sentences at the top of this section, for example:

    • The President made promises.

    The subject is the President, and the object is the promises. Alternatively, in the long passive voice:

    • Promises were made by the President.

    The subject of the sentence is the promises, and the object is the President.

    See if you can come up with five of your own long passive sentences. If you have trouble distinguishing between long passive and active, remember the list of characteristics to look for in the passive voice.

    When to Use Passive Voice

    As is the case with different registers and tones when writing or speaking, it is not always appropriate to use the same grammatical voice for all purposes or interactions. The passive voice has its time and place and situations where it should be avoided.

    When does it make sense to use the passive voice?

    • When the performer of the action is unknown - 'The accident involved two cars.'

    • When you want to be vague about who the performer is - 'Mistakes were made.'

    • When you're talking about a generally accepted or cliché notion - 'Rules were made to be broken.'

    • When you want to place emphasis on the topic you're discussing rather than who it involves - 'Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming.'

    • Academic writing often uses the passive voice, e.g. 'In a study by Peter Trudgill (1974), the research found that social class had a more significant effect on non-standard language use than gender.'

    Passive Voice Misuse

    Just as there are appropriate times to use the passive voice, there are also times when using the passive voice can sound clumsy or is otherwise inappropriate. Some examples of passive voice misuse include:

    • When someone hasn't done enough research to back up an argument - 'Sources have shown that MSG is bad for your health.' (What sources? Who says this?)

    • Using multiple passive structures in one sentence, making it wordy and overly complicated, e.g. 'The Genie case study which had been undertaken by various researchers was deemed as unethical by some parties.'

    • Not stating necessary specifics, making the meaning of a sentence unclear, e.g. 'Scholarships were offered by Oxford and Cambridge and eventually a scholarship was accepted by James.' (Which scholarship did James accept?)

    • Teachers often tell students not to write in the passive voice as this can lead to meaning becoming lost and writing becoming clunky. Schools usually prefer for students to use the active voice when writing.

    Passive Voice Passive Voice Use and Misuse StudySmarter

    Fig 4. A child writing

    Passive Voice - Key Takeaways

    • There are two main types of grammatical voice: active and passive.

    • The passive voice is formed when the verb acts upon the subject of the sentence rather than the subject enacting the verb.

    • Other common characteristics of the passive voice include: a form of the verb -to be, a past participle of a verb, a direct or implied -'by.'

    • There are two types of passive voice: short passive voice (when the agent in the sentence is unknown) and long passive voice (when the subject and object switch places).

    • There are some situations where the passive voice is appropriate and some when it should be avoided.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Passive Voice

     What does passive voice mean?

    The passive voice is a type of grammatical voice where the action of the verb is done to the subject rather than the subject carrying out the action.

    What is an example of passive voice?

    Here are five examples of the passive voice:

    • 'The pizza was eaten.'

    • 'The ball was thrown through the window.'

    • 'Promises were made.'

    • 'The tiles were replaced.'

    • 'The accident involved two cars.'

    What is the short and long passive voice?

    The short passive voice is when the subject or the performer is unknown, and the long passive voice is when the object becomes the subject of the sentence. They both contain a sentence where the action of the verb is done to the subject.

    What is the difference between short and long passive voice?

    The difference between short and long passive voice is that within the short passive voice the performer is unknown.

    How to correct the passive voice in grammar?

    Using the passive voice isn't always frowned upon; however, using the active voice can make your writing clearer and more engaging. If you want to change a sentence from passive to active, you must change the word order and the verb. Active voice sentences follow a subject-verb-object pattern, and they use active verbs.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is a verb?

    What is another term for the short passive voice?

    Which kind of passive voice has no agent?

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    Team Passive Voice Teachers

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