What is the difference between the active voice and the passive voice in English?
Compare these two sentences:
Active = “The doctor gave me a prescription”
Passive = “I was given a prescription”
The first sentence is in the “active voice”. The subject is the doctor, and the verb is “gave”. In active sentences, the focus of the sentence is on the subject.
The second sentence is in the “passive voice”. The object of the sentence (“I”) becomes the focus of the sentence.
How to form a passive sentence
1. Firstly, you need to make the object (from the active sentence) into the new subject.
For example, in “John helped me”, “me” is the object. The subject form of “me” is “I”.
Here is a list of objects and subjects:
me – I
you – You
him / her – He / She
us – We
them – They
2. Then you make the verb passive.
Put the verb “to be” into the same tense as the verb in the active sentence. For example, in the sentence “John helped me”, “helped” is the past tense. Therefore, you need the past simple tense of the verb “to be”, which is “was” or “were”.
Here’s a list of tenses for the verb “to be”:
Present simple – am / are / is
Present continuous – is being / are being
Present perfect – has been / have been
Simple past – was / were
Past continuous – was being / were being
Modals will, can etc – will be, can be etc.
3. Then add the past participle of the verb. For example “gave” – “given”, “help” – “helped”
“I was helped by John.”
“I was given a prescription by the doctor.”
4. If necessary, you can say who did the action. To do this, add “by” at the end of your sentence.
“She was awarded a degree by the University of London.”
When to use the passive voice
As a general rule, speak and write in the active voice. But passive forms can be useful in formal writing (such as scientific reports) when the emphasis is on process and results, rather than on who did the action.
1. To change the focus of a sentence.
Sometimes, the object of the sentence is more important than the subject. We can change the focus of the sentence by changing an active sentence into a passive sentence. For example, in the following sentence, the focus is on beautiful designs and colours – not on who creates or chooses them.
“Our beautiful designs are created by a team of experts. The colours are carefully chosen to blend in with the surroundings…”
2. If we don’t know who does an action.
“My bicycle has been stolen” – I don’t know who has stolen it.
3. If we don’t want to say who did something.
“The lights were left on all night.” (I don’t want to say that you left the lights on.)
4. If it is obvious who does something.
“I was given a prescription” – I know that only doctors give prescriptions, so I don’t need to add “by the doctor”.
“He was arrested” I know that the police arrest people, so I don’t need to add “by the police”.
Quiz: Passive or Active?
You need to decide if the sentence is in a passive or active form.
Level: PET (B1)
- The sentence is active: ''we make the furniture'' (not ''the furniture is made''.)
- The verb ''are sent'' is in the passive form. (The active form would be ''customers send...'')
- The sentence is in the active form: something happened to you - and ''something'' is the subject of the verb.
- The subject is in the active form - things (subject of the verb) were happening. The verb ''happen'' cannot be put into the passive form.
- ''Disco'' is the object of the verb ''hold''. Often, we use passives when we don't know (or don't care) who the agent is. In this example, we don't know which person holds the disco - and it's not important to know the name of the person.
- The sentence is in the passive, because ''you'' are arrested by someone else. We often use the passive form when the agent is obvious. In this case, it's obvious that the police arrest (so we don't need to include ''by the police'' at the end of the sentence).
- Be careful with the verb ''to be''. To make the passive form, you need the verb ''to be'' and the past participle. Here the sentence is active, and it means ''have you ever visited the USA?''
- We often use the passive when we don't want to say who does an action. The focus of the sentence is on the action - not on the person.
- Remember: you can also form passives with modal verbs. (''Can be made'', ''will be made'', ''should be made'', ''must be made'', etc.)
- Be careful of the verb ''make'' (meaning ''oblige someone''.) In the active form, you ''make someone do something''. In the passive form, you ''are made to do something'' (with the ''to do'' infinitive.)