What is the passive voice in English?
A sentence or question is in the passive voice when the subject of the sentence or question has the action done to it, rather than the subject performing the action.
Most of the time, the active voice is used in English instead of the passive, nonetheless, the passive is used much more frequently in English than in other languages such as Spanish.
Why is the passive voice used?
There are a variety of reasons why the passive is used in English, however, fundamentally, the passive is used to express or focus on the action or experience rather than the agent – the person or thing that performs the action. I.e.,
- The room was cleaned by Ben.
The action of the above sentence is “room was cleaned”, while the agent (the person or thing that performs the action) is “Ben”, which in turn, does not coincide with the subject, “room”.
That’s why this sentence is a passive structure and not an active structure.
Moreover, the above sentence “the room was cleaned by Ben” is using the correct construction for the past simple in the passive (was/were + past participle).
All verbal forms such as the present simple, present perfect have a passive equivalent (and different construction, naturally):
|Verbal tense||Active voice||Passive voice|
|Present simple||I know him.||He is known.|
|Present continuous||Harry is visiting us.||We are being visited by Harry.|
|Present perfect||She has bought a new car.||A new car has been bought by her.|
These are just a few examples. You can see all available constructions for all passive constructions in the links above.
In our index Active Voice, all available constructions and rules for the active verbal forms in English are given.
Indicating the agent in the passive
The preposition “by” is used to indicate the agent in the passive voice in English, however, should you use it? An example:
- He was spoken to yesterday.
- He was spoken to by us yesterday.
It’s up to you whether you insert the agent, in this case “us” or not.
Perhaps you want to be somewhat ambiguous as to “who” or “what” performed the action, whereby you could feel free to omit the agent.