English grammar – Passive

Form

be + verb 3 (past participle)

  1. The verb be takes the same form as the main verb in the active voice.

    • Active: My mother washes my clothes.
      Passive: My clothes are washed by my mother.
    • Active: My mother has washed my clothes.
      Passive: My clothes have been washed by my mother.
    • Active: My mother will wash my clothes.
      Passive: My clothes will be washed by my mother.
    • Active: My mother was washing my clothes.
      Passive: My clothes were being washed by my mother.
  2. If there are two objects in the active sentence, two passive sentences are possible.
    • Active: They gave me 50 dollars to do it.
    • Passive: I was given 50 dollars to do it.
    • Passive: 50 dollars was given to me to do it.
  3. Get is often used instead of be in informal spoken English.
    • I got offered the promotion!
    • The table got damaged in the fire.
    • I got asked to present the award.
  4. The subject of the active verb (sometimes called the agent) is not usually expressed in passive sentences, because it is unknown or unimportant. However, if it is used, it is usually preceded with BY.
    • The painting was done by Picasso.
  5. When we talk about a tool used by an agent, it can be preceded by with.
    • The painting was done with oils on canvas.

Meaning

Passive is used when who or what causes the action is not important or is not known, or when we want to focus on the action.

  • The rubbish is taken out every day. (we don’t know who takes the rubbish out, or maybe it’s not important)
  • The Great Wall of China was built thousands of years ago. (it’s not important exactly who built it, we want to focus on the action of building)
  • All my money has been stolen. (I don’t know who stole it, I want to emphasise the action of stealing)
  • My windows are cleaned once a month. (it’s not important who cleans them. The action of cleaning is more important)

Related grammar points

Causative

6 teaching ideas and comments

  1. Laxmidhar Panda

    I give students some old newspapers and ask them to read the news headlines and also some news items. Then, ask them to find passive sentences in the headlines:

    Two Men Arrested for Bank Robbery.

  2. Claudia, Mexico

    I ask students how to prepare a sandwich. First, I elicit the ingredients and write them on board, then the actions (mayonnaise – spread). Students can then make possible instructions using the passive.

  3. Flo

    I get students to write questions for a quiz using the passive. For example:

    When will the next World Cup be held?
    Who was the telephone invented by?
    etc.

    Then do the quiz as a class, writing the answers in the passive to get as many points as possible.

  4. Gemini

    I usually come up with a quiz. Questions such as:

    “Who discovered radioactivity?”

    The answers to the quiz are actually on the whiteboard in no particular order:

    Marie Curie etc.

    This way students have a better chance of guessing the correct answer. I call out the questions to one team at a time. They get one point for the correct answer (e.g. Marie Curie) and one point for responding in a full and correct passive sentence.

    Radioactivity was discovered by Marie Curie.

    It’s good to encourage the spoken use of the passive once they have learned the grammar structure as this is often where they struggle.

  5. Kelli

    I also use a game show-like activity to teach passive but instead of coming up with the questions myself I ask my students to write down a title of a book, movie, or song and put it in a hat. Each student draws a piece of paper and must answer in a passive sentence:

    The song Yesterday was recorded by the Beatles.

    If they are correct they get one point, if not the next student gets a chance to answer.

  6. fatima

    I’m Iranian and I’m learning English and I had lots of problems in “passive”. now I don’t have any! thank you very much. :)

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