logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

The passive voice


What follows assumes that you have followed the guide to voice in the initial plus section of the site or that you are familiar with its content.  In particular, the following will not cover the structural aspects of the passive in English but focuses instead on use and meaning.


Remind yourself ...

... of the 4 reasons we choose to use the passive in English and then click here.

focus weight

End-focus and End-weighting – the fifth reason

There is, in fact, a fifth reason for using the passive.  It is actually more universal than any of the four stated above.
In English, and many other languages, there is a documented tendency to do two things:

  1. Place new information towards the end of the utterance.  This is end focus.
  2. Place more complex phrases and clauses towards the end of the utterance.  This is end weighting.

Examples will help:

    Who wrote the report?  It was done by Peter.
Here, the new information required by the question has been placed at the end and, to do that, the speaker has selected the passive.
    Why is the car not here?  It was taken for a service.
Here, again, the service is the essential information that is new to the hearer so the passive is selected.
    I was not surprised that he was allowed to leave early in order to get home before the snow came.
Here, the complex finite clause has been shifted to the end and the passive voice chosen to accommodate this.  Compare the much more awkward:
    That he was allowed to leave early in order to get home before the snow came did not surprise me.

The concepts of end-focus and end-weighting are not always easy to explain to learners or for them to grasp and apply but they serve to explain many uses of the passive including, but not limited to, the four we identified above.  For more, see the guide to postponement, linked in the list of related guides at the end.



The passive is, in most languages, marked.  That is to say that the neutral form of the sentence is normally the active and the passive is selected because the speaker / writer wishes to draw attention in some way to an item in the sentence which is seen as significant.
There is a general guide to the concept of markedness linked in the list at the end.


Theme-rheme structure: the sixth reason

This is not the place to discuss the nature of theme-rheme structures.  There is a guide to the area linked from the list of related guides at the end.
Here, it is enough to note that the passive is frequently used to maintain and create cohesion in texts.

It sometimes works like this.  Either:

  1. The noun phrase which appears in a passive sentence is elevated to the subject position in the next or a subsequent sentence or
  2. The subject of the verb in the first sentence is demoted in a subsequent passive sentences.

Examples will probably help:

  1. Sentence 1: The building work was accomplished on time and within budget.
    Sentence 2: The construction took longer than we expected but we are happy with the result.
  2. Sentence 1: The raw materials come in by lorry to the main depot.
    Sentence 2: There, the seeds are filtered and the process can begin.

An alternative is that the agent of the passive in the first sentence is raised to the subject position in sentence 2 and then may be further raised to the subject of an active third sentences, like this:

The window was broken by the boys next door.  They were forced to pay for it by their parents.  The boys pooled their pocket money and took it to the neighbours.


Some terminology explanation: subjects, objects, agents, patients, themes and rhemes

Subject and Object

If we have a normal active sentence such as:
    The girl ate some chocolate
most people can unhesitatingly identify that we have:

However, when it comes to passive sentences, people have more difficulty describing the parts of the sentence and especially in establishing what the subject and the object are in
    Some chocolate was eaten by the girl
because we are used to the idea that it is the subject which does something and the object is the thing or person to which something happens.

Here's the answer (or one that will do for our purposes):

  1. In the active sentence the subject is the agent (she who did the eating) and the object is the patient (that which was eaten).
    We have a subject agent and a patient object.  That is most people's intuitive understanding of the terms subject and object.
  2. In the passive formulation, the subject of the verb is now the patient (some chocolate) and the agent is now introduced by the by-phrase (and is no longer the subject of the verb).
    We have, therefore, a subject patient rather than a subject agent.

Agent and Patient

Some confusion sometimes occurs when people confuse the nature of agents and patients with those of subjects and objects of verbs.  So, here is the second part of the answer:

  1. The role of subject and object is determined, in English, syntactically, by word ordering with the Subject preceding the verb and the Object following it.  In other languages, the word and/or its determiner and any other modifying elements will be marked in some way to show its case.  In this example, nominative forms for the subject and accusative forms for the object (and, perhaps, dative forms for the agent).  Some languages, such as Japanese, have an agentive case, too.
    As we have seen, subjects can be agents or patients depending on the sense.
  2. Agents and patients, on the other hand, are not determined syntactically, they are determined by the information they encode and how the information flows along the clause or sentence.
    In other words, it is the communicative function which determines what is agent and what patient rather than grammatical function as is the case with subjects and objects.
    The agent, whatever its grammatical form, is that which does the action.
    The patient, whatever its grammatical form, remains that which is acted upon by the agent.

Theme and rheme

An allied but distinct way of looking at the structures from a functional grammar standpoint is to distinguish between the theme and its accompanying rheme.  So, here's the third part of the answer:

  1. The theme of an utterance is its starting point, what the sentence is about.  So, in:
        The girl ate the chocolate
    the theme is The girl
    but in
        The chocolate was eaten by the girl
    the theme is The chocolate.
  2. The rheme is everything that follows the theme until a new theme appears, usually in a separate sentence.  So, in:
        The girl ate the chocolate
    the rheme is ate the chocolate
    but in
        The chocolate was eaten by the girl
    the rheme is was eaten by the girl.

Many find that considering Agent vs. Patient and/or theme vs. rheme a clearer way of explaining the passive than focusing on Subject vs. Object.


English is unusual

English is unusual, not because it forms the passive with auxiliary verbs (many languages do that), but because it allows passive structures which other languages do not.
Here are 10 examples of unusual passive uses which, depending on the learners' first language(s), may cause both formal and conceptual difficulties.


ditransitive verbs

We can form a passive in English from both a direct and an indirect object so we can have:
    Active: I gave him a book
Passive 1: He was given a book
Passive 2: A book was given to him
Many other languages do not allow both forms, usually reserving the passive for the direct object only, so only the second passive sentence here could be formed.  This creates both productive and receptive error.
A list in PDF format of the commonest ditransitive verbs in English is available via a link in the list of related guides at the end.


prepositional complements

English can raise the complement of a preposition (i.e., the noun phrase which completes the prepositional phrase) to make it the subject of a passive sentence.  For example:
    Active: She spoke to the people in the bar
    Passive: The people in the bar were spoken to
    Active: They worked on the car
    Passive: The car was worked on
This leaves the preposition 'stranded' but is common in English.
A lot of languages don't do that at all and it will confuse many learners.  Many languages cannot split a prepositional phrase like this and it will produce error such as
    *It was worked on the car
For more on how preposition and adverb particles are dealt with in the passive forms of multi-word verbs, see the guide, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


the verb to be

English uses the same verb (be) to form both a dynamic passive and a stative passive.  For example:
    Dynamic passive: During the game, the window was broken
Stative passive: It was cold in the room because the window was broken
In many languages, this confusion between state (arguably the adjectival use of the participle) and action is not possible because a different verb would be used in each case.  For example, in German, the first sentence would be
    Das Fenster wurde gebrochen
in which the verb werden signals the dynamic passive and
    Das Fenster war gebrochen
in which the verb sein signals the stative passive.
Many other languages do something like that and the English use of be for both meanings is not immediately grasped.  Learners who are looking for parallel constructions in English to those in their first languages may, therefore, be induced into errors such as:
    The window became broken.
English can make a dynamic-stative distinction with the verb get as in, e.g.:
    The window got broken during the game
and that will be intuitively acceptable to learners whose first languages routinely make the distinction.
Stylistically, however, some consider the use of get for this sense to be too informal in some contexts.

Many languages, such as Greek and Polish, do not readily convert participles into adjectives in the way that English does and so the confusion is avoided.  It means, however, that these learners may be reluctant to use a past participle adjectivally and hunt for a distinct adjective form (which may not be available).  That can lead to error such as:
    *The money was transferal from the bank
If the state of something is described, it may be called a resultative passive but most analyses will simply refer to it as the adjectival use of the participle.

A rich source of confusion in English is that we use the verb be to signal both the passive voice and the continuous/progressive aspect.  In a sentence such as
    She was being questioned by the police
The verb signals the passive in its first form (was) and the progressive in the second form (being).  That is simply hard to grasp for a whole range of learners whose languages differ from English in this respect (see below for more).


participle or adjective

This is an allied point.  In English it is not always clear whether the participle form is actually part of a passive construction or an adjective.  For example:
    She was decided
    They were determined
are both adjectival and describe the people.  They are also, obviously, formed from verbs but it is not possible to make an active sentence:
    *Someone decided her
    *Someone determined them

but in
    They were exhausted
    She was delighted

the case is not so clear because we can form active sentences such as:
    The work exhausted them
    The film delighted her
Many languages will have a different form for an adjective formed from a verb and the verb's tense form.  English doesn't and this causes both receptive and productive error.


stative verb uses

Some verbs in English are almost always used in stative senses.  The verbs understand, say, think and know are obvious examples.  In these cases a passive construction loses the sense of an agent and a patient.  With these verbs, a dummy it is often inserted to form the subject.  For example:
    He is known to be hot tempered
    It is known that he is hot tempered
    She is understood to have left the country
    It is understood that she has left the country
    He is said to be an expert
    It is said that he is an expert
    I am thought to be intolerant
    It is thought that I am intolerant
Few of these constructions exist in the same way in other languages and they cause trouble for learners.
Note, too, the stative use in, e.g.
    The law was designed to protect children


more than one auxiliary verb

English has more than one auxiliary verb to make a passive so we can have:
    She was imprisoned
which refers to a state or action depending on context.  It can mean
    She was taken to jail
a dynamic passive, or
    She spent time in jail
a stative passive.
But we can also make a passive with get, as in:
    She got imprisoned
in which only the first sense of the example with be can be understood here because got implies a dynamic passive.

The agent by-phrase is acceptable with the verb be but sometimes unusual or plain wrong with the verb get:
So, for example:
    She was imprisoned by the authorities
is fully acceptable in a way that
    ?She got imprisoned by the authorities
is not, and
    He was taught by his sister
is also acceptable, but
    *He got taught by his sister
is not.


complex tenses

English can combine the passive with the full range of tense and aspect forms as well as modal auxiliary verbs.  For example:
    She will have been arrested
    The car will be being serviced
    She had been spoken to
    The wall was being built and had been being built for some time.
    The car should have been being serviced but the workshop made a mistake
Some consider the complex forms combining progressive with perfect with passive with a modal to be clumsy but they are, nevertheless, possible in English.
Many languages, especially those with a more limited range of modal auxiliary verbs, cannot do this kind of thing.
Unpacking what each auxiliary verb implies in such sentences is cognitive challenging and that leads to receptive error.
Productively, such forms are also challenging, especially in spoken languages because the learner has to do two things:
    a) get all the auxiliary verbs in and in the right order
    b) produce a fluent utterance with all the weak forms of, e.g., should, have and been in place: /ðə kɑː ʃəd həv bɪn ˈbiːɪŋ ˈsɜː.vɪst/


colligation with make, let and have

If the term colligation is unfamiliar, there is a guide on this site linked in the list of related guides at the end.
Briefly, it refers to grammatical collocation.

When make is used passively, its colligational characteristics change.  For example:
    They made him go
    He was made
to go
It is simply non-intuitive to many learners that the verb make should require a different grammar when it is used in the passive but that the verb let does not require such a change so we can have:
    I let the class out early
    The class was let out early
with no changes to the grammar of the verb
Errors such as:
    *She was made visit him
    *He was let to go

Additionally, the verb let often cannot be used with a following, or catenative, verb in the passive, so, e.g.:
    *They were let to play outside
is not available, but when an adverb modifier instead of a non-finite verb is used:
    They were let outside
is acceptable.

The verb have when it is used causatively to mean oblige also behaves anomalously so we allow the active:
    They had me do the work again
but not the passive:
    *I was had do the work again


double passives

Sometimes, the object of a verb is a passive to-complement.  The verb expect is commonly used this way but there are others such as require.  For example:
    We require you to finish the work (active sentence with you as the object of require)
    We require the work to be finished (passive sentence 1 with the work as the patient)
    You are required to finish the work (by us) (passive sentence 2 with you as the patient)
    The work is required to be finished (by you) (passive sentence 3 – the double passive)
Some people consider the double-passive construction to be clumsy, even wrong.
It is certainly a form which learners are rarely going to need to produce but it crops up in written English more often than it should and takes a bit of unpacking to get at the meaning.


other passive verbs

English has a number of other verbs which convey passive meaning.  For example:
    She had her house painted
    They got their money stolen
    We have to have the car serviced
(For more on causative constructions, see the guide, linked in the list of related guides at the end.)

Other examples of passive meaning but active constructions are:
    The house needs fixing up
    The dog wants feeding
    The shirts sold well
Many languages will simply not allow an active construction such as:
    The shirts retailed for £12
to mean the passive idea of:
    The shirts were retailed for £12
These are examples, incidentally, of what is called the ergative case, in which the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb.  That case exists and is marked morphologically in many languages (see below for a short list) but English does not mark it so a sentence such as
    The door opened
    The air warmed
look like simple active sentences but the sense is often passive and might be expressed as
    Someone opened the door / The door was opened
    The draught pushed door open / The door was pushed open by the draught
    The sun warmed the air / The air was warmed by the sun

The by + agent structure is not available with some of these verbs or is questionable:
    She had / got her house painted by the man down the road
is acceptable, but
    *The house needs repairing by him
    *The dog wants feeding by someone
    *The shirts sold well by the shop

are all disallowed.

Some languages are much more forgiving and have no passive structures at all, simply using the active form and allowing the context to determine whether the sense is active or passive.  Others do things differently and may have an alternative set of verb inflexions or auxiliaries to signify this sense of the passive (see below).


Constraints on using the passive

More limitations operate in the passive voice than they do in the active.


How other languages see the passive

You can see from the above that there are ample reasons for confusion with passive structures in English.  The ways that various languages handle the passive voice are unpredictable (bewilderingly so when one ventures beyond European languages) so the area needs careful handling.  There can be no attempt to be exhaustive here so you will need to rely on your own research or knowledge about your learners' first language(s).


Dynamic and stative passives

We saw above that in English, the distinction between dynamic passives and stative passives is not consistently signalled so, for example
    The window was broken
can mean either:
    Someone broke the window
    The window was in a broken state
We can distinguish the two concepts with the passive verb get as in, e.g.
    The window got broken in the fight
but many will consider the use colloquial or even slang.
Many other languages, including German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian, use a different verb to distinguish the ideas (sein and werden in German, ser and estar in Spanish, essere and venire in Italian, vara and bli in Swedish etc.).


The middle voice

In some languages, such as Albanian, Bengali, Tamil, Icelandic and Swedish, there is a middle voice which is neither active in the full sense nor properly passive.
For example, the ergative use of the verb, in which the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb, in:
    The shoes sold well
    The beans soaked in water overnight

    The soup boiled over
would be rendered in these languages by a different grammatical structure from the active form used in English or a recognisable passive form because the sense is actually passive.  Shoes, beans and soup do not, conceptually do such things: people sell shoes and people prepare food.

Italic languages
These languages, such as French, Italian, Spanish etc., often use a similar auxiliary to form passives.  That, however, is where the similarities mostly end.  Ditransitive verbs with their dual possible passive forms, in particular, and many of the other phenomena above will cause both form and meaning problems.  The forms of complex tenses and aspects are particularly troublesome because these languages tend to inflect the verb rather than use auxiliaries to signal tense.
There is also a tendency in some of these languages, e.g., French, to avoid the passive formulation altogether by employing what is sometimes called the 'fourth person', a form usually translated into English as 'one'.  For example, in French, it is possible to translate
    The door was opened
    On a ouvert la porte (literally, One has opened the door)
Finnish and Estonian also routinely use a similar formulation.
Chinese languages
do not conjugate verbs to show tense or voice.  They do, however, use a particle, bèi, to signal the passive voice and alter the word order, raising the object of the active sentence to the subject position in the passive.  Passive constructions are conceptually not problematic but the forms in English are.  This is even worse with progressive and perfect aspects for which there is no corresponding form.  All 10 of the issues above will be problematic.
Korean and Japanese
both signal the passive by verb suffix.  The concept is straightforward but the use of auxiliaries is troublesome.  Korean has no equivalent of causatives at all.  Equally, the preposition passives (2, above) are not known.  Japanese also uses the passive to show respect and reserve and has a separate passive form which is used for something unwelcome happening to someone.  That form is akin to the English use of the passive causative such as
    They had their house broken into
has no auxiliary verbs or verb inflexions.  Disturbances to familiar word ordering will also present problems.
has a passive structure so the concept is not difficult.  However, the language often has separate verbs for those in English which have both transitive and intransitive uses.  The multiple meanings and uses of be also cause problems.
distinguishes between the passive and active only in pronunciation.  Arabic speakers may ignore passive constructions and use the active in all cases in English.  They will, however, have fewer problems understanding the structures in section 10 above, especially forms such as The shirts sold well.
(Arabic is probably better described as a language group rather than a single language because the many varieties are often not mutually comprehensible.)
Russian and Polish
have passive constructions and the concept and forms are not too difficult for speakers of these languages to grasp.  The use of multiple auxiliary verbs in complex tenses will, however, cause serious difficulty.
Germanic and Scandinavian languages
use a passive verb (usually become rather the be) and also employ auxiliaries.  The simple forms of the passive will present few terrors but more complex and unusual forms will be difficult.  Note, too, the point above about the use of different verbs to form dynamic and stative passives.


Teaching the passive – eating the elephant

This is a major area of grammar so the following is not prescriptive.  It is simply some advice.

  1. The passive needs to be approached piecemeal because of the complications and varieties of forms.  Until the basic form is mastered, more complicated forms will simply sow confusion.
  2. You cannot teach the passive at all unless your learners can handle issues of transitivity.
  3. Concept checking needs to be regularly and consistently done.  For example:
    She has been speaking Who spoke?  Did anyone speak to her?
    She has been spoken to Who spoke?  Did she speak?
    I had my house repaired Who did the work?  Who asked for the work?
    She was being questioned Who asked the questions?  Who answered?
  4. If the passive formulation is known and understood for a simple tense, it can easily be taught for perfect and progressive aspects because the same auxiliary is used in all cases.
    It is a small step from being able to see that the active form
        They gave me a prize
    bears some equivalence to
        I was given a prize
    and from there to understand the relationship between
        They have given me a prize
        I have been given a prize
    After that, more complex tense forms can be handled but only if the aspect is clear.
  5. The four main reasons we select passive forms in English (above) need to be taught separately.  There's no future in jumbling them up.  Learners who speak languages with similar or even parallel structures will have little difficulty appreciating the reasoning.  Others may have serious conceptual issues to overcome.  Teach meaning, i.e., speaker intention, first.
  6. Bear in mind that speakers / writers select the passive voice for a reason.  The active and passive forms are not simple equivalents so the user's intention must be clear.
    Be very wary, therefore, of exercises which require learners to transform active to passive sentences or vice versa.  Such exercises send out the message that the two forms are simply interchangeable with no change in meaning.  As we saw above, that's just not true.
  7. The alternative forms of passives in English (section 10, above) will cause problems for everyone but the concept of passiveness is inherent in all of them.  Conceptually, then, they are easier to handle after straightforward passives have been acquired.

Related guides
voice for a general and more elementary guide
causative for a guide to a specific type of passive construction
multi-word verbs for a consideration of how passives are (and are not) made with phrasal and prepositional verbs
ditransitive verbs a simple list with examples and some notes of the most common ones
colligation for a guide to how some items are primed for certain structures
markedness for a general guide to how English marks particular proposition
postponement for a guide to this form of word ordering

Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Dryer, MS and Haspelmath, M (eds.), 2013, The World Atlas of Language Structures Online, Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, available online at http://wals.info

Lock, G, 1966, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G and Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman
Swan, M and Smith, B, (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press