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Past simple – passive

There are several reasons as to why we use the passive voice in English. In these notes, we’re going to focus on the past simple in the passive voice and its elaborations. Generally, we use the passive when the focus is on the action and NOT on WHO or WHAT is performing the action.

Construction: was/were + past participle (helped, known) 

Example verb: locate

I was located   We were located
You were located   You (guys) were located
He/she/it was located   They were located

The agent is unknown, therefore, we don’t know who or what is the agent

  • Something was stolen from our garage last night.
  • Some sort of creature was born.

We use the passive to emphasise the subject 

  • The queen was told to listen.
  • It was Henry who shouted at the guards.

We use the passive to talk about general truths

  • The earth was occupied by dinosaurs over sixty-five million years ago.
  • World war two was spread out over a six-year period.

We can use the passive if we want to be unclear or vague about the subject  

  • A suitcase was found at the airport. (We don’t know about the specific contents of the suitcase, as a result, we use the passive). 
  • All she told me was that letters were written. 

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

We use the passive when the subject is irrelevant

(We don’t care who or what has caused the action to be). 

  • Great literature was written in the late eighteenth century.
  • A painting was sold for more than one million euros last night.

We use the passive in a more formal atmosphere like a thesis or an important piece of writing, especially scientifically speaking 

  • The elements of the structure were put into the mix.
  • The climates change issue was discussed. 

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

Lesson #35: Past simple – passive

Explanation

Construction: was/were + past participle (found, talked)

Example verb: lift

I was lifted   We were lifted
You were lifted You (guys) were lifted
He/she/it was lifted       They were lifted

Context

  • Hi
  • Good morning.
  • Do you know if my book was found?1 I left it here at the library yesterday.
  • I’m sorry, I haven’t heard about any missing books.2 Was the book burrowed from our library?3
  • Yes, I burrowed it from here.4
  • What was the title of the book, and who is the author?
  • It’s called ‘English Verbs – The Complete Guide’, and its author5 is English Reservoir.
  • Look, I’ll note it down,6 and I’ll get back to you7 as soon as I hear something. Is that okay?
  • Sure, no problem. Thanks so much.
  • No problem.

Analysis

  1. Do you know if my book was found? Here, the subject is irrelevant because we don’t care about ‘who’ found the book, rather whether the book was found. This is the past simple in the passive voice ‘was found’.
  2. I haven’t heard about any missing books. The present perfect (active) ‘haven’t heard’ is used because the action of ‘not hearing about any missing books’ continues until the present moment.
  3. Was the book burrowed from our library? ‘Was burrowed’ is the past simple in the passive voice. The focus is on the action of ‘burrowing the book’, therefore, the passive voice is necessary.
  4. I burrowed it from here. ‘Burrowed’ is the past simple tense (active). In the passive it would be ‘the book was burrowed by me’.
  5. It’s called ‘English Verbs – The Complete Guide’, and its author… Remember not to confuse ‘its’ with ‘it’s’. Here, ‘it’s’ is a possessive adjective and ‘author’ is being possessed by ‘its’, which is substituting the noun ‘English Verbs – The Complete Guide’.
  6. I’ll note it down. The future simple (active) ‘I’ll note’ (will + infinitive) is used here to describe an instant willingness to do something. We use the future simple for instant, positive reactions in English.
  7. I’ll get back to you. Once again, the future simple (active) ‘I’ll get…’ is being used to show an instant, positive reaction.

See also:

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