Passive Voice

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What Is Passive Voice? (with Examples)

Passive voice is a quality of a verb that describes when the subject of a sentence is acted upon by the verb. For example:
  • The sheriff was shot.
  • (This is an example of the passive voice. The action is done to the subject.)
When the opposite is true (i.e., the subject of the sentence is acting out the verb), it is said to be in active voice. For example:
  • I shot the sheriff.
  • (This is an example of the active voice. The subject does the action.)
In other words, a verb is said to be in the "passive voice" when its subject does not perform the action of the verb but has the action of the verb performed on it.

More Examples of the Passive Voice

Look at this example of the passive voice:

passive voice example 1

Here's another example:

passive voice example 2

Some Interactive Examples

Here are some interactive examples showing the difference between active and passive voice. In these examples, the subjects are highlighted and the verbs are bold:
  • The girls painted the fence.
  • Dawn played the piano.
  • Simon saw the fox.
  • Alan will read the poem.

Comparing the Passive Voice and Active Voice

To identify a verb in the passive voice, identify its subject and then determine that the subject is being acted upon.

Compare these two examples of the passive voice and active voice (verbs in the passive verbs shaded):

Passive Voice Example
  • A knife was used to commit the murder.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("a knife")
    Step 2: Find the verb. ("to use")
    Step 3: Ask "Did the subject perform the verb?" (No, it didn't)
    (As its subject did not perform the action of the verb, "was used" is a verb in the passive voice. The knife didn't do anything. It was passive. That's the point.)
Active Voice Example
  • The murderer used a knife.
  • Step 1: Find the subject. ("the murderer")
    Step 2: Find the verb ("to use")
    Step 3: Ask "Did the subject perform the verb?" (Yes, it did.)
    (As its subject performed the action of the verb, "used" is a verb in the active voice. The murderer did something. He was active. That's the point.)

Examples of Verbs in the Passive Voice

Remember that if a verb is in the passive voice, its subject has the action of the verb done to it. Here are some more example sentences featuring passive verbs (shaded):
  • Everyone was startled by the power outage.
  • A scream was heard coming from across the house.
  • The candles were extinguished as we rushed to the scream.
  • The crime was illuminated shortly by flashes of lightning.
  • She had been murdered.
  • A trap was devised to catch the killer.
  • Lieutenant Lavender was caught by the brilliant detective Educator Emerald.

"The Agent" Did It!

In a passive sentence, the person or thing carrying out the action (often called "the agent") is introduced with "by."

For example:
  • The cows will be moved after tea by the farm-hands.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • The farm-hands will move the cows after tea.
  • (Active version)
  • All the pies were eaten by Lee.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • Lee ate all the pies.
  • (Active version)
  • The fishing rig was designed by Mark.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • Mark designed the fishing rig.
  • (Active version)
  • The tin of tuna fish was opened by Sasha.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • Sasha opened the tin of tuna fish.
  • (Active version)
  • The printer cartridge was replaced by the engineer.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • The engineer replaced the printer cartridge.
  • (Active version)

You Might Have to Invent a Subject

Sometimes, to turn a passive sentence into an active one, you have to create your own subject.

For example:
  • The crowbar was used to open the window.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • The burglar used a crowbar to open the window.
  • (Active version)

  • Fish that are not popular in the restaurants are discarded.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • They discard the fish that are not popular in the restaurants.
  • (Active version)

  • The engine was fixed.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • He fixed the engine.
  • (Active version)

  • The map had been misplaced.
  • (Passive sentence)
  • Mark misplaced the map.
  • (Active version)

A Video Summary

Here is a video on active and passive sentences.

Why Should I Care About the Passive Voice?

Grammar checkers will often highlight passive sentences like they're errors. Here is an example:

This happens because grammar checkers were written for the business environment, where bosses often demand clear, direct language, which is best delivered through the active voice. However, there are advantages to the passive voice, so don't be bullied by your grammar checker. If you like your passive sentence, ignore your grammar checker.

Here are five good reasons to use the passive voice.

(Reason 1) The passive voice is useful to avoid blame.

  • Bad advice was given.
  • Some poor decisions were taken.
The passive voice allows you to avoid mentioning the actor (i.e., the doer of the action). Compare these to the active-voice versions:
  • John gave bad advice.
  • John made some poor decisions.

(Reason 2) The passive voice often shows a neutral or objective tone.

  • Compromises were offered by all the warring factions.
  • (The passive voice expresses a neutral tone.)

(Reason 3) The passive voice can be appropriate when the actor is unimportant, unknown, or obvious.

  • The almonds are dried for two months.
  • (The agent (i.e., the person who dries the almonds) is unimportant.)
  • This virus was downloaded after midnight.
  • (The agent (i.e., the person who downloaded the virus) is unknown.)
  • The perpetrators were kept in the cells overnight.
  • (The agent (i.e., the person who kept them in the cell) is obvious. It's the police.)

(Reason 4) The passive voice is useful to emphasize something by putting it at the start of your sentence.

  • Six diamonds were stolen.
  • (The number of diamonds is the focus of this sentence.)
  • The pigs were seen near the main road in Tamworth.
  • (The pigs are the focus of this sentence. It does not matter who saw them.)

(Reason 5) A passive-voice construction allows you to use the same subject twice.

  • John ran away but was arrested two hours later.
  • (In this sentence, the subject is "John." The verb "ran away" is an active verb. It is followed by "was arrested," which is a passive verb. This construction allows you to say two things about "John" in a natural and efficient way.)
Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

See Also

Passive sentences and why they are useful What are verbs? What is the subject of a sentence? What is the object of a sentence? What is the active voice? What is an active sentence? What voice should I use?