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1. The passive voice

The passive voice is a grammatical structure used when we don't want to emphasize who or what performs the action, but rather emphasize who or what receives it.
A wife carrying competition is held in Finland.
The treasure was hidden on a island.

2. The use of the passive voice

When we speak we can use active or passive sentences. An active sentence is the one in which the subject performs the action. However, a passive sentence is the one in which the subject of the sentence doesn't performs the action but receives it.

Active sentence
Händel composed Messiah in 1741.
In this example the subject (Händel) performs the action (compose), therefore it is an active sentence.
Passive sentence
Messiah was composed in 1741 by Händel.
In this example the subject of this sentence (the Messiah) is not the one who performs the action but the result. Therefore, it is a passive sentence.
The subject of a passive sentence is the direct or the indirect object of an active sentence.

3. How can we build a passive sentence?

A passive sentence is built by replacing the main verb of the active sentence with the verb to be in the corresponding verb tense, and then the main verb in the past participle; that is, either by adding the particle -ed to the verb if it is regular, or by looking at the past participle in the list of irregular verbs if the verb is irregular.

Subject + verb to be + main verb in past participle

Suppose we have the following active sentence:

They clean the offices at night
Subject Verb Direct object Time expression

To turn this sentence into a passive we will put the direct object as the subject, then the verb to be in the present tense (because the sentence is in the present tense), then the verb in the past participle and the rest of the sentence.

  Sentence
Active They clean the offices at night.
passive The offices are cleaned at night.

Below we show examples of active sentences and their corresponding passives in the following verb tenses:

  activE SENTENCE pasSivE SENTENCE
Present simple + They sell organic vegetables in this shop. Organic vegetables are sold in this shop.
- They don't sell organic vegetables in this shop. Organic vegetables aren't sold in this shop.
? Do they sell organic vegetables in this shop? Are organic vegetables sold in this shop.
Past simple + They found an old letter in the box. An old letter was found in the box.
- They didn't find an old letter in the box. An old letter wasn't found in the box.
? Did they find an old letter in the box? Was an old letter found in the box?
Present Perfect + They have translated my novel into Russian. My novel has been translated into Russian.
- They haven't translated my novel into Russian. My novel hasn't been translated into Russian.
? Have they translated your novel into Russian? Has your novel been translated into Russian?
Future Will + They will rescue the mountaineers soon. The mountaineers will be rescued soon.
- They won't rescue the mountaineers soon. The mountaineers won't be rescued soon.
? Will they rescue the mountaineers soon? Will the mountaineers be rescued soon?
Future Going to + They are going to shoot the film in London. The film is going to be shot in London.
- They are not going to shoot the film in London. The film is not going to be shot in London.
? Are they going to shoot the film in London? Is the film going to be shot in London?
Modals + You should water this plant very often. This plant should be watered very often.
- You shouldn't water this plant so often. This plant shouldn't be watered very often.
? Should I water this plant very often? Should this plant be watered very often?
A passive sentence cannot be formed from intransitive verbs as these do not have a direct object. 
The parcel I ordered has been arrived.
The parcel I ordered has arrived.

When in an active sentence there is both a direct and an indirect object, it is more common to put the indirect object as the subject in the passive sentence.

Suppose we have the following active sentence:

He gave me a bunch of flowers
Subject Verb Indirect object Direct object

To turn this sentence into a passive one, we will use the indirect object as a subject. Note that when the indirect object is a pronoun (me, him, them...) it must be replaced by its corresponding subject pronoun (I, you, he...).

  Sentence
Active He gave me a bunch of flowers.
Passive I was given a bunch of flowers.

However, this sentence can also be turned into passive by using the direct object as the subject.

  Sentence
Active He gave me a bunch of flowers.
Passive A bunch of flowers was given to me.

4. Passive voice uses

The most common uses of the passive voice are:

  • When it is not necessary to mention who performs the action because it is obvious.
    The cows are milked twice a day.
    In this example we can deduce that the one who milks the cows is the farmer or some employee of the farmer.
    The post was delivered on time.
    In this example, we can deduce that the person who delivers the mail is the postman.que el que reparte el correo es el cartero.
  • When we don't know who is doing the action, or it is not important to mention it.
    The wheels of my bike were stolen yesterday.
    In this example we don't know who stole the wheels from the bike.
    Is your website updated periodically?
    We do not specify who exactly updates the page because it is not important in this context.
  • When the emphasis is on the action and not on who performs it.
    Casa Batlló was built in 1875.
    In this example we do not want to emphasize who built this house, but the year it was built.
    This newspaper isn't read in our country.
    In this example the emphasis is on the action (not reading the newspaper) and not on who doesn't read it.
We can introduce who performs the action using the preposition by
The telephone was invented by Graham Bell.

5. The impersonal passive voice

The impersonal passive voice is used to express what many people think, believe or feel about a situation in a formal way.
It is believed that dreams reveal hidden truths.
Bees are known to be natural pollinators.

6. How do we build an impersonal passive sentence?

There are two different structures for building an impersonal passive sentence:

It + be (is / was / has been...) + reporting verb (in past participle) + (that) sentence
Tense ACTIVE SENTENCE PASSIVE SENTENCE
Present People think that the Prime Minister will resign. It is thought that the Prime Minister will resign.
Past People believed the Earth was flat. It was believed that the Earth was flat.

Present perfect

Some people have said that the information is false. It has been said by some that the information is false.
  • Reporting verbs are verbs that allow you to express what another person has said before. The ones that are usually used with this structure are: say, think, expect, know, believe, understand, consider..
  • With this structure we take into account the verb tense in which the reporting verb is in the active sentence.

The second structure used to build an impersonal passive sentence is:

Subject + be (am / is ..) + reporting verb (in past participle) + to + infinitive / perfect infinitive
Tense Oración activa Oración pasiva
Present People say that Paris is a beautiful city. Paris is said to be a beautiful city.
Future People expect that she will win the contest. She is expected to win the contest.
Past People believe the fire started in the kitchen. The fire is believed to have started in the kitchen.
  • The subject in this structure is the same as that of the sentence introduced by a reporting verb in the active sentence.
  • The perfect infinitive is formed with the verb have + a verb in the past participle (-ed for regular verbs or the 3rd column for irregular verbs).
  • With this structure we take into account the verb tense in which the sentence introduced by the reporting verb is in active. When the sentence refers to the present or future, it is introduced by to + infinitive. When the sentence refers to the past, it is introduced by to + perfect infinitive.
  • When the verb tense is in the present continuous, the main verb will be in the gerund, preceded by the infinitive of the verb to be.
    ACTIVE SENTENCE PASSIVE SENTENCE
    People think that the mayor is doing a dreadful job. The mayor is thought to be doing a dreadful job.
  • The subject of the sentence introduced by the reporting verb in active can be a there is/are/was...In these cases the procedure is the same as with any other subject.
    Oración activa Oración pasiva
    People say that there is a good education system in this country. There is said to be a good education system in this country.

7. Uses of impersonal passive sentences

The impersonal passive voice is used when we want to express what a large or a small number of people think, believe or feel about a situation. It is usually used in texts, in the media and in general in formal contexts.

It is expected that the summit on climate change will be held in January.
He is said to be a creative and ingenious writer.

Remember!

The passive voice is mainly used to emphasize the action and not who or what performs it.
  Form Structure Examples
Present passive + Subject + am/is/are + verb in past participle These shoes are made in Italy.
- Subject + am not/isn't/aren't + verb in past participle These shoes aren't made in Italy.
? Am/is/are + subject + verb in past participle Are these shoes made in Italy?
Past passive + Subject + was/were + verb in past participle This song was composed in 1985.
- Subject + wasn't/weren't + verb in past participle This song wasn't composed in 1985.
? Was/were + subject + verb in past participle When was this song composed?
Present perfect passive + Subject + have / has been + verb in past participle Her proposal has been accepted.
- Subject + haven't / hasn't been + verb in past participle Her proposal hasn't been accepted.
? Have / has + subject + been + verb in past participle Has her proposal been accepted?
Future passive Will + Subject + will + be + verb in past participle A solution will be found soon.
- Subject + won't + be + verb in past participle A solution will not be found soon.
? Will + subject + be + in past participle Will a solution be found soon?
Future passive Going to + Subject + am / is / are + going to + be + verb in past participle I'm going to be given a new mobile.
- Subjeto + am / is / are + not + going to + be + verb in past participle I'm not going to be given a new mobile.
? Am / is / are + subject going to + be + verb in past participle Are you going to be given a new mobile?
Modal passive + Subject + modal verb + be + verb in past participle A new baker's might be opened.
- Subject + modal verb (in negative) + be + verb in past participle The body mustn't be removed.
? Modal verb + subject + be + verb in past participle Should she be taken to hospital?

 

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