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 The passive
Are you being met?

Michael Westphal from Germany asks:

Would you be so kind as to explain the use of the passive voice in combination with the many tenses that it is used with?

Roger replies:more questions
The passive voice is used when we want to focus attention on the person or thing affected by the action. Normally, the performer of the action, or the agent, comes first and is made the subject of the verb and then we use the active form of the verb. The other person or thing is made the object of the verb. Consider these examples:
  • 'The boss invited her to the party.'

  • 'The construction company in Station Road employs three hundred people.'
However, if you want to focus on the person or thing affected by the action, you make the person or thing the subject of the sentence and use the passive voice:
  • 'She was invited to the party by the boss.'

  • 'Three hundred people are employed by the construction company in Station Road.'

When, then, should we use the passive voice in preference to the active?

We often prefer to use the passive voice when:

1. We do not know who the agent is:

  • 'I don’t know who did it, but my pet rabbit has been let out.'
  • 'I had the feeling that I was being followed.'
instead of:
  • 'I don’t know who did it, but someone has let out my pet rabbit.'
  • 'I had the feeling that somebody was following me.'

2.When it is obvious to the listener or reader who the agent is:

  • 'I had been instructed to remove all the ash trays.'
  • 'She discovered that she was being paid less than her male colleagues.'
instead of:
  • 'My boss had instructed me to remove all the ash trays.'
  • 'She discovered that the firm was paying her less than her male colleagues.'

3. When it is not important to know who the agent is:

  • 'Do you want a lift?' 'No thanks, I’m being collected.'
instead of:
  • 'Do you want a lift?' 'No thanks, someone is collecting me.'

4. When the agent has already been mentioned:

  • 'In the next session of parliament, new laws will be introduced aimed at stopping domestic violence.'
instead of:
  • 'In the next session of parliament, the government will introduce new laws aimed at stopping domestic violence.'

5. When people in general are the agents:

  • 'All the Beatles records can be borrowed from the central library.
instead of:
  • 'You can borrow all the Beatles records from the central library.

Here is a complete list of all the verb froms that are normally used in the passive.

Passive forms are made up of an appropriate form of the verb ‘to be’ followed by the past participle (pp) form of the verb:

Verb form Construction Example
Present simple am/is/are + pp How is this word pronounced?
Present continuous am/are/is being + pp The house is being redecorated.
Present perfect simple has/have been + pp He's just been sacked!
Past simple was/were + pp All his credit cards were stolen last week.
Past continuous was/were being + pp He was being treated for depression when he won the lottery.
Past perfect simple had been + pp The vegetables had been cooked for far too long, but we had to eat them.
Future simple will be + pp The house contents will be auctioned a week on Saturday.
Future perfect simple will have been + pp There’s no point in hurrying. It will all have been eaten by now.
Infinitive (to) be + pp

Exams have to be taken almost every year you are at school.

Do you know who is going to be invited?

It is possible to form the passive with other verb forms, such as the perfect continuous ones, but usually it is better to avoid these forms because of their complicated and inelegant structure e.g.

  • 'The factory has been being built for 10 years!
Note that it is only transitive verbs which can have passive forms. Intransitive verbs, like cry, die, arrive, disappear, wait, which often describe physical behaviour, cannot be used in the passive voice. They have no objects, so there is nothing to become the subject of a passive sentence.

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