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Forming Passive Sentences

Normal sentences in English are in active voice.

In active sentences the subject of the sentence is the actor of the verb or the doer of the action. In the above sentence, the subject Bill is the actor of the verb or the one who kicked the ball. The direct object the ball is the receiver of the verb action.

  • Bill kicked the ball.

In passive sentences the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action.

The ball was kicked by Bill.

In the above sentence, the ball is the receiver of the action and is the subject of the sentence. Bill, the actor of the verb is the object of the preposition by.

Steps to Form a Passive Sentence

To form a passive sentence from an active sentence:

  1. Move the receiver of the action from the direct object position of the sentence to the subject position of the sentence.
  2. Insert the verb BE in agreement in number with the new subject and in the appropriate tense.
  3. Change the verb to its past participle form.
  4. Optionally place the actor of the verb in the object position after the preposition by.
  • The boys ate the pie.
  • The pie was eaten (by the boys).
Tense Active Voice Passive Voice
Present The boys eat the pie. The pie is eaten by the boys
Present progressive The boys are eating the pie The pie is being eaten by the boys
Present perfect The boys have eaten the pie The pie has been eaten by the boys
Past The boys ate the pie The pie was eaten by the boys
Past progressive The boys were eating the pie The pie was being eaten by the boys
Past perfect The boys had eaten the pie The pie had been eaten by the boys
Future The boys will eat the pie The pie will be eaten by the boys
Future The boys are going to eat the pie. The pie is going to be eaten by the boys
Future perfect The boys will have eaten the pie The pie will have been eaten by the boys

The passive voice can also be used with modals

Present modals
Active The boys can eat the pie
Passive The pie can be eaten by the boys
Past modals
Active The boys could have eaten the pie
Passive The pie could have been eaten by the boys

Why do we use passive sentences?

  1. We use the passive voice when the receiver of the action is more important in our communication than the one who did it (the actor of the verb).
    • The president was assassinated this morning.
  2. We can use the passive when we don't know who did the action.
    • The bank was robbed yesterday.
  3. We use the passive when we don't need to say who did the action.
    • The bill was signed into law at noon.
  4. We can use the passive to avoid saying who did the action.
    • The employees were laid off just before the holidays.

Warning! Some verbs cannot be used in the passive form.

Intransitive Verbs

Intransitive verbs (verbs which do not take objects) cannot be used to form passive sentences.

Some examples of common intransitive verbs.

  • come
  • die
  • go
  • happen
  • itch
  • occur
  • rain
  • rise
  • walk

  • John came to the meeting.
  • *John was come to the meeting (incorrect).
  • The cat died in the street.
  • *The cat was died in the street (incorrect).
  • We went to the zoo.
  • *We were gone to the zoo (incorrect).
  • My back itches.
  • *My back is itched (incorrect).
  • The incident occurred last week.
  • *The incident was occurred last week(incorrect).
  • It rained this morning.
  • *It was rained this morning (incorrect).
  • Gas prices are rising again.
  • *Gas prices are being risen again (incorrect).
  • John walked to the store by himself.
  • *John was walked to the store by himself (incorrect).

Measure Verbs

There are a couple measure verbs that also cannot be used in the passive.

  • This ring costs a lot of money.
  • *A lot of money was cost by this ring (incorrect).
  • This fish weighs a lot.
  • *A lot was weighed by this fish (incorrect).

Test your knowledge

Directions: Choose the answer. Remember that not all verbs can be used in the passive voice. (10 problems)

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