Passive or Active?
By Rob Lane
This article focuses on general or standard passive structures. As masters of our own languages, we often use active and passive structures without thinking or understanding why.
If you think passive is difficult, don’t worry, you probably use it and don’t realise. The first sentence people usually learn is I was born in + year/ place. Generally, active is more common.
Although the structure is not complicated, it can be difficult to know when to use passive forms.
Passive is used in general English, news reporting, business and professional English, process description and many other areas. It is generally used to focus on the object more than the subject.
Why Use Passive?
Subject is unknown.
- Money was stolen from the bank.
Subject is unimportant.
- This house was built in 1845.
Subject is obvious.
- The new president has been elected.
- The society was established in 1904 by Mr Jones.
Style (professional, formal, reporting etc)
- Samples were taken from 100 participants during the study.
Money has been stolen from the bank. (Present Perfect Passive)
Passive is used in this sentence because the identity of the subject (the thief) is currently unknown.
It is possible to say:
Someone has stolen money from the bank. Because we don’t yet know the subject, or for style, we prefer passive.
Perhaps, when the thief has been caught, the newspaper will say:
Mr Jones stole money from the bank. (Past Simple Passive)
Often we see a passive sentence which ends with by Mr Jones. In these cases, the subject is also important. Passive is used here for either style or to prioritise the subject as secondary.
A subject is the person who does an action. An object is the person or thing that is affected by the action.
Joan gave a gift to Tony. (active)
Subject + verb + direct object + indirect object
We can create two passive sentences:
Tony was given a gift.
A gift was given to Tony.
How do I structure Passive?
Object + be (change for tense*) + past participle (main verb)
The new president + has been + elected.
This building + was + constructed in the 1921.
The E.U + was + founded in 1993.
When practicing active and passive, you should decide whether the sentence should be active or passive (look at functions) and then, for the formula, identify the:
- Tense (time)*
- Main verb
*You should use this list and the function list when you are practicing.
Present Simple = is/are
Present Continuous = is/are being
Present Perfect = has been
Past Simple = was/were
Past Continuous = was/were being
Past Perfect = had been
Future Simple = will be
Going to = is going to be
Must* = must be
Have to* = has to be
*All modals take the same form of modal + be.
Someone must do something.
Subject + verb + object
Something must be done.
Object + be + past participle
Some languages use subject + be + past participle to express English’s Past Simple.
Ich bin gegangen / Je suis allé
Confusing subject and object. Remember that in this type of sentence I is the object.
I was given an award. (I received an award.)
- Look for examples of passive in news articles or published texts and compare their use with the five functions above.
- Convert active sentences to passive. There are sections in every practice grammar book.
- Listen to samples (News, Presentations, and Discovery Channel’s series called How it’s Made.) and create some texts about production processes.
- Write your own news stories or other types of reports.