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The passive in English

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 Using English verbs in the passive


Index : Active and passive Forms of the,
passive
The passive with an object

Active and  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.
  1.    I love football.
  2.    The people were talking very loudly.
  3.    Winston Churchill wrote reports every day.
  4.    James hit the ball very hard.
Most sentences can be expressed without any need to use forms of the passive; however sometimes we may want to change the way a sentence is expressed, in order to imply a slightly different meaning.
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.
Box B: verbs used in the passive. 
  1.    Football is loved by me.....  No! this sounds very strange ! It would never be said, even if it is technically possible.
  2.    This sentence cannot be rephrased in the passive.. Talk is an intransitive verb
  3.    Reports were written every day by Winston Churchill   OK.
  4.    The ball was hit very hard by James.  OK

The passive is used, essentially, in 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
Let's see examples of these three situations.

1. Giving more emphasis to an object

 In the examples above, compare sentences 3 and 4 in box A and box B.
3a Winston Churchill wrote reports every day
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 sentence.  

   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.
4c The ball was hit very hard.
Here are two other examples of formal un-personal use of the passive.
5  The students were told to assemble at 9.30 a.m..
6  A public meeting will be held in the Town Hall next Thursday
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.

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.
Examples - using a passive to simplify a sequence of clauses.

1a  I arrived in London.  My brother met me at the station.
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 a drink.

Forms of the passive

Most of  the active forms of transitive verbs, including the infinitive and the imperative, have equivalent forms in the passive.
Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive.
Here is a table of examples for the verb to help.
Form / Tense
Aspect, voice
Simple, active Progressive, active Simple, passive Progres­sive, passive
Present I help I am helping I am helped I am being helped
Future I will help I will be helping I will be helped rare
Preterit I helped I was helping I was helped I was being helped
Present Perfect I have helped I have been helping I have been helped rare
Past perfect I had helped I had been helping I had been helped rare
Future perfect I will have helped I will have been helping I will have been helped rare

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 object.
This is only possible when the indirect object of an active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
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,

Active sentences Passive equivalent
The doctor gave me some medicine I was given some medicine by the doctor
Laura told the children a story. The children were told a story by Laura.
They brought the lady a Christmas card The lady was brought a Christmas card
Mr. Potter taught me English I was taught English by Mr. Potter.
The tourists asked me a question. I was asked a question by the tourists.
My sister made me a chocolate cake. I was made a chocolate cake by my sister
The company paid £200 to each man. Each man was paid £200 by the company
The mayor sent a letter to the residents. The residents were sent a letter by the Mayor.

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