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Passive Voice

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What is the passive voice?
Many sentences in English use the following structure: subject + verb + object/complement. This is the active voice, and the subject performs the action. In other words, the sentence tells what people and things do. The passive voice changes the focus of the sentence. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action and tells what happens to people and things.  Compare:

active voice: A famous French chef opened two new restaurants in Chicago.
passive voice: Two new restaurants were opened by a famous French chef in Chicago.

What is the sentence structure?
Passive sentences use the following structure:

     subject  |  be verb  |  past participle

     My  |  wallet  |  was  |  stolen.
     The restaurant  |  was  |  closed.
     Frank  |  will be  |  upset.

When we want to add who or what did the action, we use:

     subject  |  be verb  |  past participle  |  by  |  agent (person/thing)

     My wallet  |  was  |  stolen  | by a thief.
     The  |  restaurant  |  was  |  closed  |  by the health inspector.
     Frank  |  will be  |  upset  |  by the news.

The agent is the person/thing that acts. In the first example, the thief is the agent because he stole the wallet. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence and the agent are usually the same. (A thief stole my wallet.)

How is the passive voice used?
In the active voice, the do-ers (people/things) are important. But in the passive voice, more attention is on the people/things who receive the action, so these appear at the start of the sentence. We most often use the passive voice for one of three reasons:

     1.  When the agent isn't known. For example: My wallet was stolen (by someone).
     2.  When the agent is unimportant. For example: The restaurant was closed (by the health inspector).
     3.  When the agent is obvious. For example: Frank will be upset (by the news of his father's death).

Scientific papers often use the passive voice, as well as news broadcasts. A lot of business writing which stresses a product of achievement instead of the people uses the passive voice, too. For example: A new advertising campaign was begun. The new advertising campaign is more important than the people of the department who put it together.

Is there additional information on the passive voice?

  • It's sometimes impossible to make a passive sentence. Some active sentences don't have an object, mostly when there is an intransitive verb. (An intransitive verb shows a completed action, so doesn't have an object. Some intransitive verbs are: appear, become, happen, lie, look, sit, and sleep.
  • It's usually quite easy to spot the passive voice because it uses a be verb (am, is, are, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, and being) and a past participle.
  • Don't overuse the passive voice because it makes sentences sound boring. In English, the active voice is always more engaging and interesting for the listener or reader.



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