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Session 2

The first rockets were launched into space in the 1960s. Pretty amazing. Another thing that’s interesting is the passive voice. Find out how to make passive sentences and when to use them.

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Activity 1

Using the passive voice

The final shuttle flight was launched in 2011

How much do you know about space travel? Don't worry if it's not that much - in this session we're going to look at how we use the passive voice in English to talk about space travel and other topics.

So what is the passive voice? And why do we use it? Read the grammar explanation and have a go at our first passive quiz!

Read the text and complete the activity

Why do we use the passive voice?

Have a look at this sentence:

  • NASA launched its final shuttle flight in 2011.

This is in the active voice. To understand this, think about who or what does the action in the sentence and who or what receives the action. In this case, the action is the verb launchNASA does the action and the final shuttle flight receives the action. We sometimes call the person or thing that does the action the agent, and the person or thing that receives the action the receiver.

When the action (or the receiver) is more important than the agent

Now look at the grammar of this sentence. How is it different?

  • The final shuttle flight was launched in 2011.

The receiver (the final shuttle flight) has moved to the beginning of the sentence, and the agent (NASA) has disappeared. So one reason we use the passive voice is because we are more interested in the action, or the receiver of the action, than who or what did it. Here are some more examples of active and passive sentences. The receiver of the action is in bold, to show you how it moves to the beginning of the sentence to put emphasis on the action or the receiver of the action. Also, try to notice how the agent can be left out.

  • NASA sent its first reusable space shuttles into space in 1981.
  • The first reusable space shuttles were sent into space in 1981. (We are more interested in the sending into space.)
  • America launched its first shuttle into orbit over 30 years ago.
  • The first space shuttle was launched into orbit over 30 years ago. (We are more interested in the launching.)
  • Space shuttle explosions killed 14 astronauts.
  • 14 astronauts were killed in space shuttle explosions. (We are more interested that they were killed.)

When the agent is unknown, unimportant or obvious

We also use passive sentences when the agent is is unimportant, unknown or obvious. We often leave the agent out of these sentences.

  • The bank robbers were arrested. (We do not need to say it was the police.)
  • David's bike was stolen last week. (We don't know who did it.)
  • Three survivors were found at the crash site. (It's not important who found them.)

By + the agent

If we want to include the agent in a passive sentence, we do with the word by after the verb:

  • The final shuttle flight was launched by NASA in 2011.
  • The robbers were arrested by Officer Smith.

To do

Here's a challenge! Can you work out why we have used the passive in these sentences?

Why do we use the passive?

4 Questions

Choose the answer that best explains the use of the passive in these sentences.

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Next

So, we use the passive voice for these reasons:

  • We are more interested in the action than the agent (the person or thing who does the action)
  • We are more interested in the receiver than the agent
  • The agent is not important, not known, or it's obvious

Now you've learnt why we use the passive - in the next activity you'll see how we make it.

Session Grammar

  • In English we can talk about when 'A' does something to 'B' in two different ways. In this example, NASA is 'A' and the final shuttle is 'B'

    Active voice
    NASA
    launched the final shuttle in 2011.

    Passive voice
    The final shuttle
    was launched by NASA in 2011.

    We use the passive voice when...

    • we are more interested in the action than the agent
    • we are more interested in the receiver of the action than the agent
    • the agent (or doer) is unimportant, unknown or obvious

    The passive is made with subject + to be + past participle:

    • The shuttle was launched in 2011.
    • The bank robbers were arrested.
    • English is spoken by many people around the world.

    We use by to talk about the agent in passive sentences.

    • The Colombia shuttle was launched by NASA over 30 years ago.
    • The missing watch was found by a ten-year-old boy.