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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 3

6 Minute Grammar

Present and past passives

This unit was produced by BBC Learning English for you - and we hope you're learning a lot from our activities, videos and other materials. Passive forms like 'was produced' can be tricky to understand, but that's why we have programmes like 6 Minute Grammar. This time Rob, Neil and Mike will help you with this area of language: present and past passive forms.

Listen to the programme for examples of passives and explanations of how they're used. And try to answer this question: Who was the song 'Happy' sung by?

Listen to the audio

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Neil
Hello and welcome to 6 Minute Grammar. I'm Neil...

Rob
And I'm Rob. Hello.

Neil
Today we're talking about the passive voice.

Rob   
Yes, the passive voice. In English, we can talk about things in both the active and passive voice.

Neil
Yes. And we're going to start with the active voice. And here's Mike with our first example.

Mike
Pharrell Williams sang the song Happy.

Neil
And one more time.

Mike
Pharrell Williams sang the song Happy.

Neil
Pharrell Williams sang the song Happy.
 Good song Rob, isn't it.

Rob
Well it makes me happy anyway.

Neil
And in grammatical terms, we've got the subject - Pharrell Williams, then the verb, sang, then the object of the verb - the song Happy. And that is an example of the active voice because the performer of the action, the doer, is at the beginning of the sentence - Pharrell. We’re focusing on the person or the thing that does the action of the verb.

Rob
So far so good - but what if we want to focus on what receives the action? That's the object in the active sentence. What if we're more interested in the song than we are in the singer? Can we put the song Happy at the beginning of the sentence?

Neil
Well yes, we can, but the grammar needs to change. Listen carefully:

Mike 
The song Happy was sung by Pharrell Williams.

Neil
Again.

Mike 
The song Happy was sung by Pharrell Williams.

Neil
So now the receiver of the action - The song Happy - comes first. It changes place with the doer. And because we've changed the sentence structure, we need to make two changes to the sentence. First, we need to add the verb to be, in the correct form. Second, we have to use the past participle of the verb.

Rob
And that gives us a sentence in the passive voice:

Mike
The song Happy was sung by Pharrell Williams.

Neil
Let's listen to those two sentences one more time. Active voice:

Mike
Pharrell Williams sang the song Happy.

Neil
And passive voice:

Mike
The song Happy was sung by Pharrell Williams.

Rob
Thanks Mike. And the two sentences have exactly the same meaning, don't they, Neil?

Neil
They do. They have exactly the same meaning. So you might be wondering why we need two different ways of saying the same thing.

Rob
I was wondering... But, the good thing about passive sentences is that we can give the receiver of the action more importance in our sentence by putting it at the start, but that's not the only reason that the passive voice is useful, right Neil?

Neil   
Right! The passive voice is really useful when we don't know who or what performed the action - or if everyone knows it. So we don't need to say it. Can we have an example please, Mike...

Mike
Millions of cars were sold in 2012.

Neil
And one more time.

Mike
Millions of cars were sold in 2012.

Neil   
So that's a passive sentence with millions of cars at the start. Then we've got the verb to be plus the past participle - were sold - and then for the doer of the action - well, there is no doer.

Rob
What's that? No doer of the action at all… sound strange? Well, actually, we don't have to have a doer in a passive sentence, so, if the doer is not really important, or if it's obvious, we can leave it out. We know that some people bought all these millions of cars. But we don't have to say it.

Neil
Yeah. So we leave the performer of the action out if it's not important or if everybody knows.

Rob   
Right. You can also leave the doer out if you don't know it, like this: 

Mike 
My bicycle was stolen last weekend.

Neil   
Oh, Mike!

Rob
Poor Mike.

IDENT                  
6 Minute Grammar from bbclearningenglish.com.

Rob   
And we're talking about the passive voice. Now to make tenses in the passive voice, we change the form of the verb to be. Here's a present tense example:

Mike
Millions of songs are downloaded every day.

Neil
Again.

Mike
Millions of songs are downloaded every day. 

Neil   
And a past tense example:

Mike
15 million songs were downloaded yesterday.

Rob   
And now - it's time for a quiz. Change these sentences from active into passive, and remember, you might not need a doer. Number one: People speak Spanish in Cuba and Chile.

Neil     
And the answer is: Spanish is spoken in Cuba and Chile. Number two: The police arrested ten people last night.

Rob   
And the answer is: Ten people were arrested last night. OK, last one: Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.

Neil
Ah, I remember it well! The 1994 World Cup was won by Brazil. And the doer - Brazil - is important here, isn't it Rob?

Rob
Yes it is, very important.

Neil
So we don't leave it out.

Rob   
Well done if you got all those right. So that's the passive voice. We use it to give importance to the receiver of the action of a verb, or when we don’t know who did it or everyone knows it.

Neil   
There's more about this on our website at bbclearningenglish.com. Join us again for more 6 Minute Grammar.

Both
Bye!

So: the song 'Happy' was sung by Pharrell Williams!

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You can download 6 Minute Grammar from our Unit 22 downloads page (size: 7.66MB) and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast version.

End of Session 2

That's all for this session - we hope that it has helped you to learn more about passive forms. Did you notice all the example sentences about space in this session? We're continuing this theme in Session 3, when you'll hear more about NASA's final shuttle mission. You'll also hear a lot more examples of the present and past passive.

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.