Passive Tense

The passive tense offers you short-cuts when you don’t want to say (or you can’t say) who or what the subject of a sentence is. And they allow you to present information in a different way to the normal

S > V > O
Subject Verb Object

pattern.  When you make a sentence passive, you put the object first.

However, too many passive sentences – especially in writing – can be tedious. They can give the impression that there is no real subject or that nobody is taking responsibility.

So what is a passive sentence?

Active: The police questioned George. = S, V, O
Passive: George was questioned by the police. = O, V, S

The passive is formed by the relevant tense of ‘to be’ + the past participle. The subject is indicated by the use of ‘by’. It could of course be omitted (George was questioned) if it is obvious who is doing the questioning.

Some more examples:

Active: They are painting the house.
Passive: The house is being painted (by them).

Active: Then you add the eggs.
Passive: Then the eggs are added.

Active: They have cut my hair.
Passive: My hair has been cut.

Active: The army delivered food and blankets.
Passive: Food and blankets were delivered by the army.

Active: We will never know the answer.
Passive: The answer will never be known.

Note that in some of these examples the subject is deleted in the passive. ‘By’ is only needed if the identity of the subject is important:

My hair has been cut.
My hair has been cut by Anne for the first time.

Here are some other examples, this time using modals. Note here the use of the passive infinitive without ‘to’:

Active: We must do something.
Passive: Something must be done.

Active: We should change the programme.
Passive: The programme should be changed.

Active: We could easily alter the arrangements.
Passive: Arrangements could easily be altered.

With the verbs ‘need’, ‘have’ and the modal ‘ought to’, the infinitive does take ‘to’:

Active: We need to find a solution.
Passive: A solution needs to be found.

Active: He has to do it.
Pasisve: It has to be done.

Active: We ought to say something.
Passive: Something ought to be said.

When making sentences passive, it is also common to use the verb ‘to have’ followed by the noun and the participle:

I just had my hair cut.
I had my car serviced.
I had my heart checked.

You can also use ‘get’, ‘see’ and ‘find’ with passives in some situations:

I got my ears pierced.
I saw my future taken from me. (helpless, can’t stop it)
I found my bank account emptied. (surprised discovery)

Look out also for passive constructions using ‘being’ + partciple. They are particularly common after state verbs like ‘enjoy’, ‘like’, ‘hate’:

I like being driven to work.
I enjoyed being read to.
I hate being interrupted.

Don’t confuse this with ‘been’ which indicates an event rather than a continuous activity:

Something should have been said at the meeting.
The room has been repainted.
I’ve been burgled!

Try these online exercises (with answers) on passives, varying levels: