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Grammar Reference

Present and past passive

Meaning and use

In English, we can talk about the present and past in both the active voice and passive voice.The active voice focuses on the agent or person or thing doing the action.

Alice sent Mary a birthday card.

Many people listen to pop music.


The passive voice focuses on the receiver of the action.

Mary was sent a birthday card by Alice.

Pop music is listened to by many people.


We use the passive for a number of reasons. We may be more interested in the action than the person or thing (agent) performing the action. In this case, it may be left out completely.

First, the onion was washed and then sliced.

Next, it was fried and mixed with red peppers.

Finally, it was added to the beef and cooked for fifteen minutes.


We may also leave the agent out if it is unimportant, unknown or obvious to the listener.

The bank robbers were arrested.

David’s bike was stolen last week.

No survivors were discovered at the crash site.



The passive is made with subject + to be + past participle. Note that the active voice object becomes the passive voice subject. The verb to be is used to express both present tense and past tense.


Millions of photographs are taken every day.

The internet is used by people all over the world.

My sister was bitten by a dog.



Japanese isn’t widely spoken outside Japan.

We weren’t seated until well after nine o’clock.

Our new washing machine wasn’t delivered on time.



Were you given a name tag when you arrived?

Is your form filled out correctly?

Are these fish caught locally?


Take note: identifying the passive

Unlike in the active voice, the main verb in the passive is always the past participle.

In the passive, the agent or doer of a verb is always introduced with by.


Take note: past participle as adjective

In passive sentences, the past participle sometimes acts as an adjective.

The restaurant was closed all day.


Spoken English

While the passive is commonly used in formal or academic written English, it is more common to hear the active voice in spoken English.