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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 all the structural aspects of the passive in English but focuses instead on use and meaning.
The essential ideas concern the relationship between the doer of an action, the agent and the recipient, the patient.  In other words, voice describes the relationship between the verb and what are called its arguments (subject and object).
There is a different sort of argument, not very widely supported, that the passive is not a voice so much as an aspect because it signals how the user of the language perceives an event in the same way that, for example, the choice of a perfect, prospective or progressive tense form signals the user's perception of an event.  That is not the line taken here where we refer to the passive voice, not the passive aspect but it is of some interest.

The passive voice in English is deceptively simple and this is accordingly quite a long guide.
If you are here for a particular issue, you may find this menu helpful.  If not, simply work your way through.

Terminology explained Why use the passive End weight and focus Markedness Theme and rheme
Quasi-passives etc. Modal auxiliary verbs 10 ways English is unusual Object complement verbs Constraints on passive use
Summary diagram Passive infinitives Pronunciation issues The passive in other languages Teaching the passive

At any time, clicking on -top- will return you to this menu.


Some terminology explained: subjects, objects, agents, patients


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: 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.

Omitting the agent

By one estimate (Quirk et al, 1972:807) 80% of passive sentences in English do not include the agent.  This is not a surprise as five out of the usual six reasons for using the passive which are listed below concern the fact we do not know or care much who the agent is.  Using the agent expression with by in the following cases would be unusual, clumsy or impossible:

In most of the cases above, an agent can be imagined so an active-voice clause can be constructed.  Such passives clauses are, for obvious reasons, called agentive passives insofar as an alternative active-voice construction is possible (even if rare or unnatural).

See below under quasi-passive construction for more on agent omission and unrecoverable agents.



Remind yourself ...

... of the 6 reasons we choose to use the passive in English and then click here.



End-focus and End-weighting – the seventh reason

There is, in fact, a seventh reason for using the passive.  It is actually more universal than any of the six stated above and can be said to explain all of them.
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 six 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.
Compare, for example:
    I did the work
which is the usual unmarked form, with
    The work was done by me
in which the speaker has marked the agent to make something clear, to boast, to emphasise and so on.  Context and co-text will tell us what is intended to be marked in some way.
The passive can be the marked choice for two reasons as we saw:

  1. To emphasise the patient:
        The work was done
  2. To emphasise the agent
        The work was done by her

If the agent is not included, or is unrecoverable (see below), then the assumption will be that the patient is being marked for special consideration.

There is a general guide to the concept of markedness linked in the list at the end.



Theme-rheme structure: the eighth reason


Identifying topical theme and rheme

Theme-rheme structuring is a distinct way of looking at the passive from a functional grammar standpoint.  Distinguishing which is the topical theme and which the rheme is usually a simple matter.

  1. The topical 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.
    In the first sentence the theme and the subject are the same but in the second, passive clause, the theme and the patient are the same.
  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 and a natural theme for the next sentence will be the chocolate (or a pronoun for it).  The follow-on clause might be, e.g.:
        ... which was left on the table
    but in
        The chocolate was eaten by the girl ...
    the rheme is was eaten by the girl and a natural theme for the next sentence will be the girl as in, for example:
        ... and she refused to share it with her friends.

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.

There is a guide to the area of theme and rheme in general which discusses the types of themes we find in texts.  That guide is linked from the list of related guides at the end.
Here, we are concerned only with topical themes (the focus on meaning) and 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.
    Here, the first sentence is in the passive and the patient is the building work.  In sentence 2, the synonym, construction is elevated to the theme of the next sentence and is now the subject of an active-voice clause.
  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.
    Sentence 3: This process takes some hours ...
    Here, the first sentence is active with the raw materials as its theme (and subject).
    In the second sentence, the word there serves as a synonym for the main depot and is the textual theme of the sentence along with the seeds which is the topical theme and forms the patient in the passive-voice clause.
    The passive use sends the filtering and the process to the end of the sentence so that it can act naturally as the topical theme of sentence 3.

An alternative, as we saw above with the girl and the chocolate, 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 it was taken to the neighbours who were satisfied with that.



Quasi- or pseudo-passive constructions and non-agentive passives

Some constructions which are similar to passives in certain ways such as, for example:
    The water boiled
    The peas overcooked

in which it is clear that the subject is, in fact, the patient rather than an active doer of the verb are referred to as quasi- or pseudo-passives in some analyses.
That is not the line taken here.  In this guide such structures are considered ergative uses of the verbs and are analysed under that heading (section 10, below).

Because English retains the form of verb participles when they are used as adjectives, it is sometimes tempting to classify all clauses with passive-like constructions as real passives.
Other languages do things differently so would have a different form (usually an ending or other inflexion) on the word supported in, e.g.,

  1. The theory is well supported
  2. The theory is supported by our findings

However, English does not so it is often a matter of conjecture or deeper analysis to understand whether we are dealing with an adjective being used predicatively to describe the theory or whether a passive construction is being used for which there is a corresponding active structure available.
In the first example, a., no active form can be constructed but in b., we could construct:
    Our findings support the theory
so we are justified in identifying the sentence as a passive.

Unfortunately, this is not always as clear as it should be.  Compare, for example:

  1. Mary was interested by the idea
  2. Mary was interested in the idea

For sentence c., we can construct an active equivalent as:
    The idea interested Mary
but that cannot be done for sentence d.
So, sentence c. can be described as passive and sentence d. as containing and adjective to describe Mary with a complementing prepositional phrase.

At this point, we may be tempted to conclude that the use of the by phrase is a defining characteristic of passive clauses.  Unfortunately, that won't work either in all cases because we can, for example, have:

  1. The judge was influenced by his personal interests
  2. The judge was uninfluenced by his personal interests

In e., we have a by phrase so we can make the active sentence equivalent as:
    His personal interests influenced the judge
but we also have a by phrase in sentence f. but this is one from which no active sentence can be made because there is no corresponding verb uninfluence so we can't have:
    *His personal interests uninfluenced the judge
Non-intuitively, then we have almost completely parallel sentences, one a passive and the other containing a predicative adjective.

There are two allied issues:

participle-like adjectives with no verb form
Some participle-like adjectives (generally negative) have no corresponding verb form and show the same characteristics, including: unoffended, unbiased, downhearted, decaffeinated, uplifted, pointed (in the sense of critically intended) and more.
synthetic causative verbs
Many verbs, too, take -d or -ed to form adjectives and they are often what are called synthetic causative verbs ending in -ify, -ise / ize, -ate and -en.  In some cases with these verbs, it is not possible to imagine what the agent is and so no equivalent active construction with an agent as the subject can be persuasively proposed.  For example:
    The north is industrialised
    The area has been gentrified
    The language has been activated
    His hearing was sharpened

all require some imagination to think of a suitable agent so could be analysed as predicative adjective clauses but in other cases, an agent can easily be imagined:
    The treaty has been ratified (by Congress)
    The road has been widened (by the construction company)
    The results are compromised (by the inaccurate measurements)
    The painting has been authenticated (by experts in the field)
and in these cases, we can identify the clauses as true passives because an active construction is readily available even when the agent is omitted.

There are, in fact, a number of other prepositions which can take on the role of linking the quasi-agent to the verb in passive-like constructions so we find, for example:
    He was concerned about the damage → The damage concerned him
    I was surprised at his opposition → His opposition surprised me
    She was satisfied with the room → The room satisfied her
    The idea was known to them → They knew the idea
    They were worried over the future of their children → The future of their children worried them
and in all these cases, it is possible to construct an active-voice equivalent as we see so they may be considered passive constructions.  A better analysis, at least for teaching purposes is to consider the constructions as adjectival and more is said both in the guide to adjectives and in the guide to prepositions as complements of adjectives.
Both those guides are linked below.

To pursue this a little further, we can allow what are called non-agentive passives in some circumstances but, because the clauses have no agent, explicit or otherwise, there is no corresponding active-voice construction so such clauses are also probably better considered adjectival in nature, at least for classroom explanations.
Examples include:
    The factory is very thoroughly mechanised
    The material is liquefied
    The word has been Anglicised

and so on.  Most of these verbs indicate a result of a process of some kind and it is the outcome, not the process, which interests us so no agent is suggested or imagined.  For this reason, too, when we search for an active-voice equivalent, the tense form of choice is the present perfect although the passive-voice clause is in the present simple.  When the passive is in the simple past, the past perfect is the tense choice in the active.
Thus, for example, the active voice equivalent of:
    The room is well organised
is not
    You organise the room well
    You have organised the room well
and the present perfect form is functioning in its usual role to embed a past action in the present.  We are, to repeat, interested in the outcome not the activity.
We also get, for example, the active-voice equivalent of:
    The word was incorporated into English by the 19th century
    The Victorians had incorporated the word by the 19th century

An allied issue occurs with some pseudo-copular verbs which can appear in passive-like constructions such as:
    He grew increasingly annoyed by the noise
    She became irritated by his interruptions
    They ended up convinced by my arguments

and so on.
In all these cases, too, an alternative prepositional phrase is available so we could have:
    He grew increasingly annoyed about the noise
    She became irritated with his interruptions
    They ended up convinced of my arguments
It is not always clear whether the verb be is acting as a colourless (i.e., virtually meaningless) copula or forming a passive-voice clause.
For more about these constructions and how participial adjectives are used as complements of copular verbs, see the guide, linked below.



Polysemous modal auxiliary verbs

Some modal auxiliary verbs carry different meanings and figuring out which meaning they imply is often a case of looking at context and co-text.
When they are used in passive sentences, this can cause difficulties because the meaning in an active sentence may be different from the meaning in a passive structure.
Here are some instances of this meaning shift:

will / shall
This modal auxiliary verb carries different senses of modality in these examples:
    It will get dark soon
is a statement about the future which carries a strong sense of inevitability and propositional truth.  That is epistemic modality.
    I won't be late again, I promise
is a statement of what is called commissive modality.  The speaker is self-imposing a duty.  This is deontic modality.
    I'll help you with that
is a statement of current willingness and an example of dynamic modality.
When the verb appears in the passive voice, it can slide between these meanings in a way that often confuses learners.
For example:
    Mary'll take these to the post office on her way home
is dynamic modality and refers only to Mary's ability and willingness to do something but
    These will be taken to the post office
can imply a duty on the hearer to ensure that it is done (deontic modality) or a prediction (epistemic modality).
The verb shall is more extreme in this regard.  Usually, it is confined to questions concerning willingness as in, e.g.:
    Shall we go?
in which, incidentally, it cannot be replaced by will, but in passive forms it implies a strong obligation as in, e.g.:
    This card shall be surrendered to the issuer on demand
which has nothing to do with futurity or willingness but is an absolute obligation imposed on the card holder.
can / could
The two commonest meanings of the verb are:
Ability (dynamic modality):
    Mary can sing in tune
    My brother could do that well

Possibility (epistemic modality):
    It can be cold at night even in the summer
    It could have been taken by the children

However, in the passive, the verb usually refers to possibility only and not to ability.  We get, for example:
    Mary cannot explain this
which refers to ability, but
    This cannot be explained
which refers to possibility.
    Mary could remove the tree
which refers to her putative ability, but
    The tree could be removed
which refers to possibility only.
    We can't see John
which refers to ability
    John can't be seen
which refers to possibility.
may / might
This verb also refers to obligation, or its lack, permission (deontic modality) as in:
    Might I ask a question?
    Passengers may not proceed beyond this point
The verb also refers, however, to possibility (epistemic modality) as in:
    She may be surprised to hear that
    That might be the right answer
In the passive, only the sense of possibility is usually retained and must is preferred for the obligation sense.  We get, for example,
    The roof may be repaired soon (possibility)
    Must the roof be repaired soon? (obligation, not permission)
    You may quote me on that (permission)
    I may be quoted on that (possibility)
should / ought (to)
These verbs carry the sense of epistemic modality as in:
    He left an hour ago so should be here soon
    I'm told the flight's on time so we ought to land in an hour
and deontic modality as in:
    He should tell the truth
    You oughtn't to be so rude to your father
In the passive, only the deontic sense of obligation is usually retained.  So, for example:
    The meeting should be held in the boardroom
    The figures ought to be checked again
    The taxi for the station should have been booked
    They ought to be met at the airport
which all imply obligation, not possibility or likelihood.

None of the above should be taken as absolute because even in the passive voice some of the alternative modal senses may be retained.  The way to bet, however, is that the natural and most likely interpretation of modal auxiliary verb meaning in the passive voice is as set out here.



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 (indirect passive): He was given a book
Passive 2 (direct passive): A book was given to him
Many other languages do not allow both indirect and direct passive 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 noun which is modified by a prepositional phrase to make it the patient of a passive sentence.  For example:
    Active: She spoke to the people in the bar
    Passive: The people in the bar were spoken to
and English can also raise the complement (or object) of a prepositional phrase to the subject position as in:
    Active: They worked on the car
    Passive: The car was worked on
This leaves the preposition 'stranded' but is common in English.
The form of this is, technically, a prepositional passive.
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 to them, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


the verb be

English uses the same verb (be) to form both a dynamic passive and a stative passive.  For example:

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 wurde (from werden) signals the dynamic passive and
    Das Fenster war gebrochen
in which the verb war (from 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).  Many have no equivalent at all of the progressive form.


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.
For example, if we translate exhausted as in
    She was exhausted
and the same word as in:
    The work has exhausted her
the first of which is clearly adjectival and the second verbal, we can see that in many languages the forms are distinct but often related forms.
Some examples are:

Language Word Translation   Language Word Translation
Finnish adjective uupunut Swedish adjective utmattad
verb participle uuvuttanut verb participle utmattat
Italian adjective esausta Portuguese adjective exausta
verb participle esaurita verb participle exauriu
Polish adjective wyczerpana Czech adjective vyčerpaná
verb participle wyczerpała verb participle vyčerpala
Some languages, however, share the English phenomenon of making the participle and the adjective the same form and they include German (both erschöpft), Dutch (both uitgeput) and French (both épuisée) as well as a range of others.  The way to bet, however, is that most of our learners' first languages will have separate forms for each grammatical function.

The uniformity of past participles and participle adjectives allows clauses which superficially appear to be passive sentences but which have no active alternatives especially with the verb get.  For example:
    Your writing is getting confused
    She has to get dressed for the show

etc. which do not have alternative active formulations.
It also allows, in English, the use of an alternative copular verb which, again is superficially passive-like in its construction such as:
    The company is becoming increasingly departmentalized
    The amount of money his father gave him became steadily reduced

which again, have no active formulations.

It is also possible to create quasi-passive constructions which contain an agent connected with by as a real passive might so we get, e.g.:
    I felt disappointed by his reaction
    She seemed delighted by my response

where the copular verbs feel and seem act in a way similar to be in passive sentences.
From such sentences, it is possible to form an active alternative such as:
    His reaction disappointed me
    My response delighted her

so the passive nature of these sentences is revealed.


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 is 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
when it refers to 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 cognitively 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:

  1. get all the auxiliary verbs in and in the right order
  2. 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 cannot happily be used with a following, or catenative, verb in the passive, so, e.g.:
    *?They were let play outside
is clumsy at best, but when an adverb modifier instead of a non-finite verb is used:
    They were let outside
it 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.
See the section on passive infinitives below for a little more.


other passive verbs and the ergative

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
(The causative constructions exemplified here are often considered just another form of the passive voice and they are in some respects.  They are, however, complicated enough to deserve their own guide.  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 of what is called the ergative case, in which the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb.  So, for example, we can have:
    She cooked the vegetables
in which we have an obvious subject and object and from which we can make a passive:
    The vegetables were cooked (by her).
However, this verb in English is one of the group which allows the ergative, too, so we can also have:
    The vegetables cooked nicely
which appears to be an active clause but in which the object has been raised to the subject position and the sense is passive.
The ergative case 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

In the section above on pseudo-passive constructions, we were concerned with the distinctions between participial adjective use and passive constructions proper.  It was noted there, however, that ergative uses of verbs are also, in some analyses, describable as pseudo-passives.  That is not the line taken here for the sake of clarity but it is a defensible analysis.

A short list of verbs which allow ergative, (or pseudo-passive) constructions in English includes:

break close change cook grow move start stop
split shut vary boil expand swerve begin land
tear slam swing bake enlarge turn take off halt
crack bang alter poach spread escape commence cease

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).

Some other verbs work similarly and there is a noticeable tendency to ellipt the passive auxiliary in English and produce sentences such as:
    The garden flooded
    The bus is now boarding

where the subject is semantically illogical but allowed because the agent is understood.

Stylistically, the use of the ergative form performs a similar function to the use of passives in that it allows the speaker / writer to avoid identifying the agent.  Hence its treatment here.



Object-complement verbs

She was made the manager  

Some verbs in English are object-complement verbs and, while they do not, technically, have a direct object, having instead an object complement, their nature makes them candidates for passive formulations.  We should first distinguish here between object and subject-complements:

  1. Subject complements refer, rather obviously to the subject of the verb and are copular so we get, for example:
        John seems happy
        Mary is the boss

    Neither of these can be made passive, although the second can be reversed to make:
        The boss is Mary
    in which the subject is now The boss but the nouns still operate in apposition.
  2. There is, however, a group of monotransitive verbs which take object complements which includes many of opinion (such as consider, find, believe etc.) and others which denote causing a change in something (such as paint, make, sweep, name, declare, call etc.).  In all cases, the complement refers to the object of the verb.
    Because we must have an object in these cases for the complement to refer to, therefore, we can produce a passive formulation such as:
        He announced it finished → It was announced finished
        They designated John chairman → John was designated chairman
        We dyed it blue → It was dyed blue
        He made me angry → I was made angry
        They thought it too expensive→ It was thought too expensive

    and so on.
    A list of such verbs includes: announce, appoint, assess, believe, call, choose, consider, declare, deem, designate, dye, elect, find, judge, label, make, name, nominate, opt for, paint, proclaim, pronounce, select, sweep, think and a few other close synonyms.

Object-complement verbs are sometimes referred to as factitive verbs, incidentally.  They are causative in nature but differ from true causative verbs structurally.
Causative verbs, properly defined, require a secondary action so we get, for example:
    They made me go with them
in which there are two actions: had and go.
Factitive verbs require no secondary actions and are sufficient in themselves so there is a distinct difference between, e.g.:
    They made her the manager (factitive use)
    They made her stay late at the office (causative use).

It is slightly unusual but not impossible to include the agent in factitive verb clauses but we can encounter, for example:
    She was made the manager by the board
    I was made angry by her father

One reason that this is unusual is because we are generally concerned with what happened to the patient rather than who or what the agent was in these cases.
The structure of the active sentences with these verbs is normally: SVOCO or Subject–Verb–Object–Object complement and to make a passive we simply raise the object to the subject position, converting it to the patient.


Constraints on using the passive

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


A summary so far

Here's where we are.  What follows is not included in the summary and examples are just that: for more, see the above.



The passive infinitive

The passive infinitive is frequently seen with modal auxiliary verbs and its formation is straightforward, if a little clumsy in English.

Present passive infinitive
This is formed by using the to-infinitive of be plus the form of the past participle or, with most modal auxiliary verbs, the bare infinitive plus the past participle.  Like this:
    John is expecting to be given the money
    She will be hoping for it to be finished soon
They had asked
to be given the money
Your essay must be word processed
The work should be completed soon
The perfect passive infinitive
is not as common, is formed with have been plus the past participle and occurs mostly with modal auxiliary verbs as a commentary on the past as in, e.g.:
    That should not have been done
    The car must have been towed away
    That needn't have been said
    She couldn't have been invited

etc. but also with other verbs, when the to-infinitive is used such as:
    Mary was expecting to have been given the prize
An important conceptual point is that the form looks very similar to the present perfect tense but does not necessarily carry the sense of present relevance.  The perfect passive infinitive is, therefore, a past tense, not a present perfect tense.
Pronunciation issues
There is a pronunciation issue here because contractions and the weak form of been are commonly used:
    She couldn't've been told about it earlier
in which the passive form is often pronounced /ˈkʊdnt.əv.bɪn/ and even the /d/ sound may be elided in rapid speech to leave /ˈkʊnt.əv.bɪn/
Even the present passive infinitive is routinely pronounced with a very weakened form of to which may not even be recognisable in rapid speech.  E.g.:
    They pushed to be included
may be pronounced as
with the /t/ assimilated with the following /t/ sound.
More complex progressive forms
It is also possible to make more complex forms with progressive verb tenses such as:
    His letters were believed to be being opened
which is a progressive present passive infinitive
or even:
    The crop has been being grown here for many years
which is the almost never encountered perfect progressive passive infinitive.
That can be extended with a modal auxiliary verb to give:
    This car should have been being serviced this week
in which there are four auxiliary verbs.
These more complex passive infinitives are mercifully rare and many would reject them as malformed.  They do, however, occur.
In particular, English speakers exhibit a strong tendency to avoid the be being and been being constructions.
Double passives
We saw above (Point 9) that passive infinitives often co-occur with other passive constructions, forming double passives such as:
    The job is expected to be finished by the end of the week
and we also noted that some find such constructions clumsy at best, plain wrong at worst.
With main and auxiliary verbs
Although the passive infinitive is frequently used with modal auxiliary verbs in sentences such as:
    She should be told
    That must be eaten today
    The car can be kept on the driveway
    They ought to be fired
    This needn't have been finished tonight
    Can it have been thrown away?

that is not solely the case because the form also occurs with other verbs as in:
    She wanted to be told
    They liked to be kept informed
    We expected it to have been done
    We ordered it to be reworked
    They intended it to have been kept secret

and the form also occurs with modality expressed through other means as in:
    It is permissible for the car to be used at the weekends
    I will allow the car to be used at the weekends
    I forbid the car to be used at the weekends
    It is advisable that the car be washed frequently
    That the car be kept in the garage is a strict rule

and so on.

The passive infinitive suffers from the same oddities as other passive forms (see above) and from the same constraints.


Pronunciation issues

Because the passive is more frequently found in written than spoken language, there is a temptation to overlook pronunciation issues but the forms are used frequently in spoken language, especially in more formal settings, so some attention needs to be paid to the weakened forms in particular.

The forms of the verb be, by far the most common way of forming a passive, are simple enough to list along with some other issues:

  1. be will usually be pronounced as /bi/ or /bɪ/ rather than /biː/ so, e.g.:
        It'll be done
    is pronounced as
        /ˈɪt.l̩.bi.dʌn/ or/ˈɪt.l̩.bɪ.dʌn/
  2. being is, in citation form, pronounced as /ˈbiːɪŋ/ with a long vowel followed by a short one and a nasalised ending.  However, in connected speech, the nasalisation is dropped and the vowel often shortened, so, e.g.:
        She is being interviewed
    may be heard as:
  3. been is weakened routinely to sound like bin so, e.g.:
        My car's been stolen
    will usually be rendered as:
  4. am is almost always contracted to /m/ as in:
        I am told
    and even when not contracted the vowel is weakened to a schwa as in:
  5. are may be reduced to a schwa before a consonant and to /ər/ or even a syllabic /r/ before a vowel as in:
        We are told
        We are open
  6. is is almost always reduced to a simple/z/ as in, e.g.:
        She is asked
    which is identical to the pronunciation of
        She has asked
    and can cause receptive problems.
  7. was is almost always weakened to /wz/ or /wəz/ so, e.g.:
        It was broken
    will sound as:
  8. were is weakened to /wə/ or /wər/ and the /r/ may be elided even when followed by a vowel and almost always when followed by a consonant, so, e.g.:
        They were asked
    is spoken as:
        /ˈðeɪ.wər.ˈɑːskt/ or /ˈðeɪ.wə.ˈɑːskt/
        They were told
  9. More complex forms using modal verbs and passive infinitives are often severely contracted in rapid speech so, e.g.:
        She could have been asked
    is likely to sound like:
    with the reduction of have to just /ə/ and the whole of the auxiliary verb phrase unstressed.
    There are some more examples above in the section on the passive infinitive of the issues caused by contractions.
  10. When the agent is included with a by phrase (or any of the other prepositional alternatives), it is usually followed by a stressed phrase because the function is to mark the agent.  So, for example, something like:
        The work was done by my department
    will be stressed and phrased into tone units as:
        The work was done || by MY depARTment
    In agent phrases, the preposition retains its full pronunciation as /baɪ/.  Other prepositions (to, at etc.) will normally be weakened to /tə/ and /ət/ etc.



How other languages see the passive

You can see from the above that there is ample potential 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.).
Speakers of these languages may be tempted to invent a parallel form using a different verb such as become or have in the belief that it ought to be possible to distinguish the concepts lexically.


The middle voice

In some languages, such as Albanian, Bengali, Tamil, Icelandic, Greek 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.
Learners from these language backgrounds may be caught uncomfortably in the middle, not knowing whether to employ a passive or active construction.


Forming the passive

Romance 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 discussed 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 prepositional 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 or macrolanguage rather than a single language because its 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 advice.


Function first

The first thing to bear in mind is that passive voice performs a function in English (and all languages).  It is not just a grammatical puzzle to be solved.  The functions were set out at the beginning of this guide but they bear repeating here because teachers need to focus on one function of the passive voice at a time.  Mixing up the functions will confuse and bewilder learners who are only just coming to terms with the form of the structures.  Later, we can indulge in a bit of language analysis with learners who are confident in their mastery of form to discuss the multiple functions the passive voice can realise.
The functions are:

There is one more, which we encountered in this guide and that is the agentless passive in which it is not possible to discern any agent and an active formulation cannot naturally be made as in, for example:
    This area has been gentrified

The other issue is to focus on the marked nature of the passive voice.  Grammatical forms are not selected at random and the passive always has the effect of marking an element of a clause for emphatic effect.  If you lose sight of that, teaching the area becomes very difficult and, quite often, useless.  There is a significant difference between:
    Mary kicked the ball
    The ball was kicked into touch
    The ball was kicked by Mary
Notice how the next clause will be affected by the formulation that the speaker has used in establishing the theme and rheme of the first one.  It is easy enough to see that:
    ... and it went over the wall
naturally follows the first clause because the ball is its rheme.
We can also see that:
    ... and John took the throw in quickly
naturally follows the second clause because the rheme concerns the ball being in touch.
    ... and she hurt her foot
naturally follows the third clause because we have chosen to mark the agent by giving it end focus and Mary naturally forms the theme of the next clause.

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.

At the very beginning of teaching the passive, learners need to be able to see the difference between the forms and understand what is meant so we can use a very simple exercise such as:

Talk to your colleagues / partner and decide which goes with which.
This letter was written by the boss   I want to tell you what I did
This letter was sent on 12th January I'm saying what Mary did
The money has all gone I want to tell you about the letter
I spent all the money I want to say what the boss did
Mary spent all the money I want to make it very clear who sent the letter
The money was all spent by Mary I want to tell you about the money

Later, we can focus on theme and rheme (without necessarily using the terminology), like this:

Decide which part follows the first parts of the sentence.
John took the money   ... but he denies it
The money was taken by John ... so we called the police
The money was taken ... and put it in his pocket



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.  Here's a little video you may want to use to show learners how to form a basic passive sentence:

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.

Later, providing the function is clear, the focus can shift to more complex forms with other tenses.  Sentence re-ordering tasks such as this are useful:

Put these words in the right order to make a well-formed sentence
in the office stolen the money been had by the workers

And that sort of thing can also be done electronically like this.
Do not be tempted to ask learners to re-arrange all the separate words in a sentence and give people something like:
    workers | been | in | the | the | the | by | had | stolen | money | office
to arrange because that breaks up the sense units and learners will lose focus.



You cannot teach the passive at all unless your learners can handle issues of transitivity.  Usually, at the levels where the passive is handled, there isn't much of a problem but languages differ concerning how transitivity works with some surprisingly common verbs so a bit of awareness raising is often in order.  Something like this is quick, effective and easy to do:

Why are the sentences on the left correct but the ones on the right are wrong?
The car was parked illegally The plate was fallen and broken
It was left on the table The hotel was booked in
The man disappeared She was appeared
She stood in the rain The rain was stood in
I worked on the problem The problem was worked
The dog was walked Home was walked
The last two clauses are tricky because of semantic issues to do with the verb.  Transitivity in English is often dependent on verb meaning.



It would be foolish, naturally, to introduce alternative passive forms with ditransitive verbs until your learners were confident in their mastery of the forms with monotransitive verbs and had a grasp of the functions of the passive.  Sooner or later, however, this area needs to be addressed and the temptation to start with form and get your learners to convert say:
    The head teacher gave a prize to my son / The head teacher gave my son a prize
    My son was given a prize
    A prize was given to my son
should be avoided because, as you can see from these examples, the second formulation is odd and somewhat unnatural.
What is needed first is a focus on speaker intention and markedness, like this perhaps:

What's the difference in meaning between the sentences on the left and the ones on the right?
Which one is more natural?
Why is that?
Mary was asked a question A question was asked to Mary
I was given dinner by the neighbours Dinner was given to me by the neighbours
I was offered a job A job was offered to me
I was sent the parcel The parcel was sent to me
He was shown the castle The castle was shown to him
The children were read a story A story was read to the children

Much useful discussion can arise from an exercise like this which also serves the purpose of exemplifying the alternative structures which are possible with ditransitive verbs and alerting learners to the marked nature of the passive clauses.
The issue which muddies the water is the dative shift, of course, which is only possible with ditransitive verbs.  What is meant by this is that two possible orderings of the objects are possible.  We can have:
    He gave me a book
    He gave a book to me
in which the indirect object (in the dative case) is shifted to the end and linked with the preposition to.
Both orderings will produce the same pair of passive-voice clauses:
    A book was given to me
    I was given a book

and that's not immediately intuitive to learners whose first languages do not allow both forms, have no passive construction at all or do not allow dative shifting like this (i.e., most of them in one way or another).
If we raise the book to the initial position and thereby mark it for thematic emphasis, the dative shift is compulsory because
    *A book was given me
is not acceptable in standard Modern English.
Click here for a little re-ordering exercise which alerts the learner to the need to include the dative shift and how it is done.


Concept checking

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?



Auxiliary verb uses

The fact that some languages, notably, German, Swedish, Spanish and Italian use different verbs for dynamic and stative passive clauses can be exploited to help one teach the use of the verb get to form a passive in English.  Although it is often considered informal, get can only be used to make a dynamic passive and to distinguish the concept from a stative form.  A little translation work can quickly get across the difference between:
    The window was broken
    The window got broken

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
the passive in Business English for a short guide to how the above applies to Business English settings
lesson a short lesson at B1 level for learners to understand the passive.  Use it if you like.
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
lexicogrammar for more on how meaning subverts and controls syntax
verb types and clause structures for a more general guide to the whole area
colligation for a guide to how some items are primed for certain structures
markedness for a general guide to how English marks particular propositions
participial adjectives for a discussion of participial adjectives whose analysis overlaps with passive constructions
copular verbs and complements for considerations of how participle adjectives appear in passive-like (but not passive) constructions
prepositions: other meanings for some consideration of other prepositions which link patient, verb and agent
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 https://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