Mastering the passive voice is an essential part of learning English. Oliver Pritchard explores this puzzling part of the language.
The passive voice does exist in Spanish but is used a lot less often. This means learners of English often don’t use the passive voice enough. To native English ears, this makes the world sound bizarrely active, full of agents controlling everything they do. Although many students are very good at recognising the passive, using it correctly is a key part of improving English after intermediate level. For that reason, we’ve included some creative exercises at the bottom.
First, let’s consider why we use the passive. There are three main reasons to use the passive:
|1) Because the object of the sentence is more important that the subject –
The World Cup is being hosted by Brazil.
|2) Because the subject is unknown –
Jaime Garzón was killed.
|3) Because the subject is obvious or irrelevant –
Spanish is spoken in Colombia.
|Level: IntermediateThe basic form of the passive you should all recognise: Object + be + past participle. The object moves to the front of the sentence for emphasis. James scored a goal. A goal was scored (by James). The words in parentheses are not necessary, although many students like to use them. This is a common error.In the first example, the subject (Brazil) can be included or excluded depending on your preference and the context. It is sometimes necessary, usually in short sentences. Remember that in the second and third examples we really do not care about the subject and the reason we use the passive is to avoid unnecessary language. Look at example three – it is clear that we mean “by people or Colombians” and there is no reason to give this information.
The second example is the most important – Jaime Garzon was killed by them sounds very strange in English. Indeed, my grandfather would immediately ask you “who are they, and why did they kill him”. This is a key difference between the two languages: “me robaron” is “I was robbed (probably by some ñeros)” NOT “they robbed me”. The second sentence has a very different meaning – it means you know who the people are!
Finally, we can use almost any tense with the passive, although the past forms are very commonly used. Remember to ONLY conjugate the verb “to be”.. The past participle remains constant. Also, only verbs that take an object can be used in the passive. For example “appear” can never take an object “I appear house”.
Here are some exercises. Complete these sentences using an appropriate passive construction. There are no precise answers, but send in your ideas to:
JFK _______________________ in ________________________
|Level: Advanced“I had my car washed”. The basic passive constructions are quite hard for many Latin speakers to use regularly, but when you have a good control of passive forms, try moving on to the popular construction have/get + object + past participle. This is used when someone performs a service for you. For example, hairdressing. Most people do not cut their own hair but instead employ someone to do it for them. So they have their hair cut. Have or get replaces the verb to be and the object falls between this auxiliary verb and the past participle.
Try finishing these sentences:
I had my dog _______________________________________