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CHAPTER 12.  THE PASSIVE VOICE

1. Use of the passive voice

As explained in the preceding chapter, the Active Voice of a verb is used when the subject of the verb refers to the person or thing performing the action described by the verb.

In contrast, the Passive Voice of a verb is used when the subject of the verb refers to the person or thing receiving the action described by the verb. Only a verb which can take an object can be put into the Passive Voice.

The Passive Voice is more commonly used in English than it is in other European languages such as German or French. As well as being used in everyday English, the Passive Voice is used extensively in official documents and scientific papers.

In the following examples, the verbs in the Passive Voice are underlined.
e.g. The ball was struck by the boy.
      Gold has been found by the explorers.
In these examples, the verbs was struck and has been found are in the Passive Voice. The subjects ball and gold refer to things receiving the actions described by the verbs.

 

2. Formation of the indicative mood of the passive voice

For every tense in the Active Voice, there is a corresponding tense in the Passive Voice. In the Passive Voice, the verb to be acts as an auxiliary. The Passive Voice tenses of an English verb are formed from the corresponding conjugations of to be, followed by the past participle of the verb.

a. The simple present indicative
For instance, the Simple Present Indicative of to be, and the Simple Present Indicative of the Passive Voice of the verb to show are conjugated as follows:

Simple Present IndicativeSimple Present Indicative
of To Beof Passive Voice of To Show
  I am  I am shown
  you are  you are shown
  he is  he is shown
  she is  she is shown
  it is  it is shown
  we are  we are shown
  they are  they are shown


b. The other indicative tenses
Similarly, the other Indicative tenses of the Passive Voice of the verb to show are conjugated as indicated in the following table. The corresponding tenses of the verb to be are included for purposes of comparison.

The verb To Be compared with the Passive Voice of the verb To Show

Present ContinuousPresent Continuous
I am beingI am being shown
you are beingyou are being shown
he is beinghe is being shown
she is beingshe is being shown
it is beingit is being shown
we are beingwe are being shown
they are beingthey are being shown
  
Present PerfectPresent Perfect
I have beenI have been shown
you have beenyou have been shown
he has beenhe has been shown
she has beenshe has been shown
it has beenit has been shown
we have beenwe have been shown
they have beenthey have been shown
  
Present Perfect ContinuousPresent Perfect Continuous
have been beingI have been being shown
you have been beingyou have been being shown
he has been beinghe has been being shown
she has been beingshe has been being shown
it has been beingit has been being shown
we have been beingwe have been being shown
they have been beingthey have been being shown
  
Simple PastSimple Past
I wasI was shown
you wereyou were shown
he washe was shown
she wasshe was shown
it wasit was shown
we werewe were shown
they werethey were shown
  
Past ContinuousPast Continuous
I was beingI was being shown
you were beingyou were being shown
he was beinghe was being shown
she was beingshe was being shown
it was beingit was being shown
we were beingwe were being shown
they were beingthey were being shown
  
Past PerfectPast Perfect
I had beenI had been shown
you had beenyou had been shown
he had beenhe had been shown
she had beenshe had been shown
it had beenit had been shown
we had beenwe had been shown
they had beenthey had been shown
  
Past Perfect ContinuousPast Perfect Continuous
I had been beingI had been being shown
you had been beingyou had been being shown
he had been beinghe had been being shown
she had been beingshe had been being shown
it had been beingit had been being shown
we had been beingwe had been being shown
they had been beingthey had been being shown
  
Simple FutureSimple Future
I will (shall) beI will (shall) be shown
you will beyou will be shown
he will behe will be shown
she will beshe will be shown
it will beit will be shown
we will (shall) bewe will (shall) be shown
they will bethey will be shown
  
Future ContinuousFuture Continuous
I will (shall) be beingI will (shall) be being shown
you will be beingyou will be being shown
he will be beinghe will be being shown
she will be beingshe will be being shown
it will be beingit will be being shown
we will (shall) be beingwe will (shall) be being shown
they will be beingthey will be being shown
  
Future PerfectFuture Perfect
I will (shall) have beenI will (shall) have been shown
you will have beenyou will have been shown
he will have beenhe will have been shown
she will have beenshe will have been shown
it will have beenit will have been shown
we will (shall) have beenwe will (shall) have been shown
they will have beenthey will have been shown
  
Future Perfect ContinuousFuture Perfect Continuous
I will (shall) have been beingI will (shall) have been being shown
you will have been beingyou will have been being shown
he will have been beinghe will have been being shown
she will have been beingshe will have been being shown
It will have been beingit will have been being shown
we will (shall) have been beingwe will (shall) have been being shown
they will have been beingthey will have been being shown

 
c. Summary of the formation of the indicative tenses of the passive voice
The following table summarizes the formation of the Indicative tenses of the Passive Voice.

The Formation of the Indicative Mood of the Passive Voice

TenseAuxiliaryVerb Form
Simple Presentam/is/arepast participle
Present Continuousam/is/are beingpast participle
Present Perfecthave/has beenpast participle
Present Perfect Continuous**have/has been beingpast participle
   
Simple Pastwas/werepast participle
Past Continuouswas/were beingpast participle
Past Perfecthad beenpast participle
Past Perfect Continuous**had been beingpast participle
   
Simple Futurewill (shall) be*past participle
Future Continuous**will (shall) be beingpast participle
Future Perfectwill (shall) have beenpast participle
Future Perfect Continuous**will (shall) have been beingpast participle


* The other modal auxiliaries form conjugations in the same way as shown for will and shall.

** The Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect Continuous, Future Continuous, and Future Perfect Continuous tenses of the Passive Voice are cumbersome, and are rarely used. Only the more commonly used tenses of the Passive Voice will be discussed below.

 

3. Questions and negative statements

As is the case for other English conjugations, verbs in the Passive Voice form questions and negative statements using the first auxiliary.

a. Questions
To form a question, the first auxiliary is placed before the subject. For example:

Affirmative StatementQuestion
You were shown the sights.Were you shown the sights?
She is being shown the sights.Is she being shown the sights?
He will have been shown the sights.Will he have been shown the sights?
We should be shown the sights.Should we be shown the sights?


See Exercise 1.

b. Negative statements
To form a negative statement, the word not is placed after the first auxiliary. For example:

      Negative Statements
      You were not shown the sights.
      She is not being shown the sights.
      He will not have been shown the sights.
      We should not be shown the sights.

See Exercise 2.

c. Negative questions
To form a negative question, the first auxiliary is placed before the subject, and the word not is placed after the subject. However, when contractions are used, the contracted form of not follows immediately after the auxiliary. Contractions are often used in spoken English. For example:

      Without Contractions
      Were you not shown the sights?
      Is she not being shown the sights?
      Will he not have been shown the sights?
      Should we not be shown the sights?

      With Contractions
      Weren't you shown the sights?
      Isn't she being shown the sights?
      Won't he have been shown the sights?
      Shouldn't we be shown the sights?

See Exercise 3.

 

4. Changing the voice of a verb

When the verb of a sentence is changed from the Active Voice to the Passive Voice and the other words in the sentence are left unaltered, a change in meaning results. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined.
e.g. Active Voice: He is driving to the airport.
      Passive Voice: He is being driven to the airport.
The person referred to by the subject of the first sentence is behaving actively; the person is doing the driving. The person referred to by the subject of the second sentence is behaving passively; someone else is doing the driving.

Using the first person singular of the verb to show as an example, the following table compares the most commonly used tenses of the Indicative Mood of the Passive Voice with the corresponding tenses of the Active Voice.

TenseActive VoicePassive Voice
  Simple Present  I show  I am shown
        Negative Statement:  I do not show  I am not shown
  Present Continuous  I am showing  I am being shown
  Present Perfect  I have shown  I have been shown
    
  Simple Past  I showed  I was shown
        Negative Statement:  I did not show  I was not shown
  Past Continuous  I was showing  I was being shown
  Past Perfect  I had shown  I had been shown
    
  Simple Future  I will show  I will be shown
  Future Perfect  I will have shown  I will have been shown
    
  Simple, with would  I would show  I would be shown
  Perfect, with would  I would have shown  I would have been shown


See Exercises 4 and 5.

 

5. Changing the voice of a verb while preserving the meaning of a sentence

In order to preserve the meaning of a sentence when the Voice of the verb is changed, it is necessary to alter the order of the words in the sentence.

a. Changing the verb from the active voice to the passive voice
When a verb which takes an object is changed from the Active Voice to the Passive Voice, in order to preserve the meaning of the sentence, the former object becomes the subject of the verb, and the former subject may be preceded by the preposition by, and placed after the verb. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined, and the direct objects of the verbs are printed in bold type.

For instance, in the sentence:
      The wind is rippling the water.
the verb is rippling has the subject wind and takes the object water. When the verb is put into the Passive Voice and the meaning of the sentence is preserved, the former object, water, becomes the subject of the verb, and the former subject, wind, becomes the object of the preposition by, as follows:
      The water is being rippled by the wind.

Other examples are:
      Active: The squirrel ate the nut.
      Passive: The nut was eaten by the squirrel.

      Active: The child will open the parcel.
      Passive: The parcel will be opened by the child.

In the first pair of examples, the verb ate, in the Active Voice, is changed to was eaten, in the Passive Voice. In order to preserve the meaning, nut, the object of the verb in the Active Voice, becomes the subject of the verb in the Passive Voice, and is placed before the verb; and squirrel, the subject of the verb in the Active Voice, becomes the object of the preposition by, and is placed after the verb.

Similarly, in the second pair of examples, parcel, the object of the verb in the Active Voice, becomes the subject of the verb in the Passive Voice and is placed before the verb; and child, the subject of the verb in the Active Voice, becomes the object of the preposition by, and is placed after the verb.

See Exercise 6.

It should be noted that, when changing the Voice of a verb in a sentence while preserving the meaning of the sentence, it is necessary to make sure that the verb agrees with its new subject.
e.g. Active: The boys are mowing the lawn.
      Passive: The lawn is being mowed by the boys.

In the first sentence, the subject boys is plural; therefore a plural auxiliary are is used. In the second sentence, the subject lawn is singular; therefore a singular auxiliary is is used. The agreement of verbs with noun subjects is discussed in the next chapter.

b. Changing the verb from the passive voice to the active voice
When a verb is changed from the Passive Voice to the Active Voice, in order to preserve the meaning of the sentence, the former subject becomes the object of the verb, and, if the sentence includes a phrase beginning with the preposition by, the former object of the preposition becomes the subject of the verb.
e.g. Passive: The clover is being eaten by the cow.
      Active: The cow is eating the clover.

In this pair of examples, the verb is being eaten, in the Passive Voice, is changed to is eating, in the Active Voice. In order to preserve the meaning of the sentence, clover, the subject of the verb in the Passive Voice, becomes the object of the verb in the Active Voice, and is placed after the verb; and cow, the object of the preposition by, becomes the subject of the verb in the Active Voice, and is placed before the verb.

Other examples are:
      Passive: The wine was ordered by the dealer.
      Active: The dealer ordered the wine.

      Passive: The deer could have been killed by the poacher.
      Active: The poacher could have killed the deer.

See Exercise 7.

c. Changing the voice of a verb which takes both a direct object and an indirect object
When a verb in the Active Voice takes both a direct object and an indirect object, either object can become the subject of the verb when the verb is put into the Passive Voice, and the meaning of the sentence is preserved. The object which does not become the subject remains as an object. When a verb in the Passive Voice takes an indirect object, the indirect object is usually preceded by a preposition.
e.g. Active: The guide will show you the museum.
      Passive: You will be shown the museum by the guide.
      Passive: The museum will be shown to you by the guide.

In the first sentence, the verb will show, in the Active Voice, takes the direct object museum, and the indirect object you. In the second and third sentences, the verb will be shown is in the Passive Voice, and the meaning has been preserved by altering the word order and using the preposition by. In the second sentence, the former indirect object, you, is the subject of the verb, and the former direct object, museum, remains the direct object. In the third sentence, the former direct object, museum, is the subject of the verb, and the former indirect object, you, is preceded by the preposition to.

A similar example is:
      Active: The policeman gave you a medal.
      Passive: You were given a medal by the policeman.
      Passive: A medal was given to you by the policeman.

In the first sentence, the verb gave, in the Active Voice, takes the direct object medal and the indirect object you. In the second and third sentences, the verb was given is in the Passive Voice. In the second sentence, the former indirect object, you, is the subject of the verb, and the former direct object, medal, remains the direct object. In the third sentence, the former direct object, medal, is the subject of the verb, and the former indirect object, you, is preceded by the preposition to.

 

6. The subjunctive mood of the passive voice

The Passive Voice tenses discussed so far have all been in the Indicative Mood. However, verbs in the Passive Voice can also be put into the Subjunctive Mood.

It has been seen that all of the tenses in the Passive Voice are formed using auxiliaries. As has already been explained, the Subjunctive Mood of tenses using auxiliaries is formed by putting the first auxiliary into the Subjunctive Mood.

Using the verb to show as an example, the following table illustrates the formation of the tenses of the Subjunctive Mood of the Passive Voice.

The Subjunctive Mood of the Passive Voice of the verb To Show

Simple PresentSimple Past
I be shownI were shown
you be shownyou were shown
he be shownhe were shown
she be shownshe were shown
it be shownit were shown
we be shownwe were shown
they be shownthey were shown
   
Present ContinuousPast Continuous
I be being shownI were being shown
you be being shownyou were being shown
he be being shownhe were being shown
she be being shownshe were being shown
it be being shownit were being shown
we be being shownwe were being shown
they be being shownthey were being shown
   
Present PerfectPast Perfect
I have been shownI had been shown
you have been shownyou had been shown
he have been shownhe had been shown
she have been shownshe had been shown
it have been shownit had been shown
we have been shownwe had been shown
they have been shownthey had been shown
   
Present Perfect ContinuousPast Perfect Continuous
I have been being shownI had been being shown
you have been being shownyou had been being shown
he have been being shownhe had been being shown
she have been being shownshe had been being shown
it have been being shownit had been being shown
we have been being shownwe had been being shown
they have been being shownthey had been being shown


The following table summarizes the formation of the Subjunctive tenses of the Passive Voice.

The Formation of the Subjunctive Mood of the Passive Voice

TenseAuxiliaryVerb Form
Simple Presentbepast participle
Present Continuous be beingpast participle
Present Perfecthave beenpast participle
Present Perfect Continuoushave been beingpast participle
   
Simple Pastwerepast participle
Past Continuouswere beingpast participle
Past Perfecthad beenpast participle
Past Perfect Continuoushad been beingpast participle


a. Use of the simple present subjunctive
Like the Simple Present Subjunctive of the Active Voice, the Simple Present Subjunctive of the Passive Voice is often used in subordinate clauses beginning with that in sentences which contain formal commands, or requests.

As can be seen from the preceding table, the Simple Present Subjunctive of The Passive Voice is formed from the invariable auxiliary be, followed by the past participle of the verb. The following sentences are examples of the use of the Simple Present Subjunctive of the Passive Voice.
e.g. I request that he be invited to speak.
      We asked that our suggestions be considered.
      They will insist that their colleague be admitted to the association.

See Exercise 8.

b. Use of the past forms of the subjunctive
Like the past forms of the Subjunctive of the Active Voice, the past forms of the Subjunctive of the Passive Voice are used in wishes, and in statements containing false or improbable conditions.
e.g. I wish he were allowed to come.
      It would have been better if they had been invited.

In the first example, the Simple Past Subjunctive of the Passive Voice, were allowed, is used in expressing a wish. In the second example, the Past Perfect Subjunctive of the Passive Voice, had been invited, is used in expressing the false condition they had been invited.

 

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