Download PDF

The Passive Tense Explained

1. Active and Passive Contrasted

Sentences can be active or passive in English. An active sentence has the subject first (the person or thing that does the verb), followed by the verb, and finally the object (the person or thing that the action happens to).

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johndrovethe car
Passive sentence:The carwas drivenby John.

In passive sentences we put the object first, then the verb and finally the subject (if known).

We can only form a passive sentence from an active sentence when there is an object in the active sentence. Some verbs (intransitive) do not have objects: arrivecry, work, laugh, and talk are intransitive verbs: and cannot be made passive

  • Peter arrived home.
  • She was crying.
  • I work for a bank in London.
  • They laughed non stop.
  • We talked for hours.

2. Passive – Use

We only use the passive when we are interested in the object or when we do not know who caused the action.

  • When we want to change the focus of the sentence:
    • Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare (We are more interested in the play than the writer in this sentence)
  • When who or what does the action is unknown, unimportant, obvious or ‘people in general’:
    • My car has been stolen (unknown agent).
    • My computer is being repaired (unimportant agent).
    • He was arrested (obvious agent, the police).
    • Mobile phones must be switched off. (people in general).
  • In factual or scientific writing:
    • The mixture is placed in a test tube and heated.

3. Passive – Form

to be + past participle

  • object of the active sentence becomes subject in the passive sentence
  • subject of the active sentence becomes object in the passive sentence (or is left out)
Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnbuilta house.
                          Passive
Passive sentence:A houseis builtby John.

4. Examples

4.1. Simple Present

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnbuildsa house.
Passive
Passive sentence:A houseis builtby John.

4.2. Simple Past

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnbuilta house.
Passive
Passive sentence:A housewas builtby John.

4.3. Present Perfect

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnhas builta house.
Passive
Passive sentence:A househas been builtby John.

4.4. will-future

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnwill builda house.
Passive
Passive sentence:A housewill be builtby John.

4.5. Modals

Type of sentenceSubjectVerbObject
Active sentence:Johnmay builda house.
Passive
Passive sentence:A housemay be builtby John.