verbs in the passive
In European languages, including English, verbs can be used in two
different "voices", called the active
and the passive
The active voice is by far the more common of the two. Here are some
simple examples of verbs used in the active voice.
Box A :
Examples - verbs used in the active voice.
Most sentences can be expressed without any need to use forms of the
sometimes we may want to change the way a sentence is expressed, in
order to imply a slightly different meaning.
- I love
The people were talking very loudly.
Winston Churchill wrote reports every day.
James hit the ball very hard.
Generally speaking, it is only transitive
sentences (sentences that have a direct object) that can be
rephrased in the passive. Here are the first four examples again,
reexpressed using a passive verb, when this is possible.
verbs used in the passive.
is loved by me..... No! this sounds very strange
! It would never be said, even if it is technically possible.
This sentence cannot be rephrased in
is an intransitive verb
Reports were written every day by Winston Churchill
The ball was hit very hard by James. OK
The passive is
used, essentially, in three situations:
Let's see examples of these three situations.
- To put more emphasis on the word that would be the
object of an active sentence.
- To write an impersonal sentence.
- To simplify the structure of a complex sentence
1. Giving more emphasis to an object
In the examples above, compare sentences 3 and 4 in box A and
3a Winston Churchill wrote reports
3b Reports were written every day
by Winston Churchill
4a James hit the ball very hard.
4b The ball was hit very hard by James.
Sentences 3a and 4a describe human actions – which is what
most everyday sentences do.
Sentences 3b and 4b describe the same actions, but place objects
(reports / ball) at the centre of the action, by making them into the
subject of passive sentences.
In these normal "passive transformations" the direct
object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive
Occasionally however, instead of the direct
object, it is the indirect
object of an active sentence that can become the subject of a passive
sentence. See the Passive followed by
an object below.
2. Writing an impersonal sentence.
In this case, the passive is used as a tool of formal style (see styles of English) to
express actions that are not specifically linked to any person. We can
thus remove the person from sentences 3b and 4b, which then become
non-personal, and rather formal.
3c Reports were written every day.
Here are two other examples of formal un-personal use of the passive.
4c The ball was hit very hard.
5 The students were told
to assemble at 9.30 a.m..
In these examples, the writer does not tell us – maybe does
not want to tell us – who has told the students to assemble,
nor who is organising a public meeting. Either it is not important, or
the writer prefers not to say.
6 A public meeting will be held in the Town Hall next Thursday
3. Simplifying the structure of a sequence of clauses
Often, meaning is easier to understand if we use the same subject for a
sequence of sentences or clauses : sometimes, this may require the use
of a passive structure for one of the clauses.
using a passive to simplify a sequence of clauses.
1a I arrived in London. My brother met me at the
1b I arrived in London and was met
by my brother at the station
2a. The guests were waiting for an hour before someone gave
them a drink
2b. The guests were waiting for an hour before they were given
Forms of the
Most of the active forms of transitive verbs,
including the infinitive and the imperative, have equivalent forms in
Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive.
Here is a table of examples for the verb to help.
||I am helping
||I am helped
||I am being helped
will be helping
will be helped
was being helped
have been helping
have been helped
had been helping
had been helped
will have helped
will have been helping
will have been helped
For more details on each tense, see pages on the Present, the Past and the Future
The passive can also sometimes be formed using the verb get,
instead of be,
as an auxiliary. See Get and got.
The passive followed by an object
Unlike most other European languages, passive verb forms in English can
sometimes be followed by a direct
This is only possible when the indirect
object of an active sentence becomes the subject of the
This happens with a limited
number of verbs, known as "ditransitive
verbs" among the most common of which are give, tell, bring, teach,
ask, pay, sell, send,
|The doctor gave me
was given some
medicine by the doctor
|Laura told the
children a story.
children were told a story
|They brought the lady a
was brought a
|Mr. Potter taught me English
was taught English
by Mr. Potter.
tourists asked me a
question by the tourists.
sister made me a
a chocolate cake by my sister
company paid £200 to each
was paid £200
by the company
mayor sent a letter
residents were sent a letter
by the Mayor.
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