What is the Passive Voice? 😅 English Grammar Lesson

Lesson Overview

Hooray! Emma has finally made a lesson about the passive voice! (Many of you have been asking for it!)

In this lesson, I’ll teach you WHAT it is, HOW to use it & WHY you should use it in English…. with lots of examples and practice!

Ready? Let’s do this!

Video Transcript
Section 1
Hello I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! This lesson is at the top of my request list. So many of you have been asking me for a lesson about the passive voice so I’m glad that I finally got it ready for you.

Now, this can be a really confusing grammar structure in English. Lots of students ask “What’s the point of the passive voice? Is it really that important?”

Yes! Understanding the passive voice is important. In this lesson, you’ll learn what it looks like, why it’s useful and you’ll practise using it with me.

The passive voice is used often by native English speakers. It’s a mistake to think that it’s only used in formal speech. It’s also used informally, quite a bit! So stay with me through this entire lesson, keep focused, it’s not that long.

Before we keep going, a quick little reminder to join the mmmEnglish Grammar Challenge. You’ll get to practise the 10 most common grammar mistakes that English learners make and learn how to avoid them with me. And if you join by the end of May, you could win one of the many, many prizes that we’ve got going on.

So why should you use the passive voice?

Well, there are times when you don’t want to say who or what did the action. Maybe you’re trying to avoid responsibility for something you did or you don’t want to get your mate into trouble. Or maybe you don’t know who did the action or because actually the object is the most important or the most interesting part of the sentence. So that’s the thing that the action is happening to not the thing that is doing the action.

You can use the passive to change the focus of your sentence. So let’s go back a moment. To understand the passive voice, I should really first explain the active voice but you already know it, it looks like this.

  • The children ate the cake.

Subject, verb, object. Now most English sentences are more complicated than this but we’ll start simply. The subject does the action to the object.

  • The children ate the cake.

Now, imagine that you left for work in the morning and there was a whole cake on the kitchen table. But by the time you got home, it had completely disappeared. You don’t know who ate it, I mean you could probably guess, but you don’t know.

  • Where is the cake? The cake was eaten by somebody.

So the solution is to use the passive voice because we don’t know who ate the cake. Now, sometimes we’re just more interested in the object of the sentence rather than the subject.

  • English speakers frequently use the passive voice.

But this lesson isn’t about English speakers, it’s about the passive voice. It’s the most important thing. So we can change it to say:

  • The passive voice is frequently used by English speakers.

Now you’ll often read passive sentences in newspapers when the journalist can’t say who did something. Maybe because they don’t know who did it. It’s also used in scientific reports and legal documents because the information has to be objective so often their is no subject.

Now some other really common passive expressions that you already know – be born.

We don’t say “My mother bore me on June 23rd 1989

  • I was born on June 23rd 1989.

When your friend tells you about his new colleague, he won’t say “People call him Tony” he’ll say “He’s called Tony” or “He’s named Tony”

  • ‘The Stand’ was written by Steven King.
  • The movie Deadpool was directed by Tim Miller.
  • The national anthem was sung by Fergie.

In all of these really common examples, you can see the structure of the passive voice. The be verb followed by the past participle.

I thought we only use the past participle verb in the perfect tenses?

Yeah we do use it in the perfect tenses and in the passive voice. If you see the be verb followed by the past participle form, you know that this is a passive sentence.

So let’s go back to the first example to explain the form of a passive sentence. If our active sentence is “The children ate the cake” the passive sentence is “The cake was eaten by the children”

The object of the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive sentence.  To make the object of active sentence become the subject, we actually need to change a few things in our sentence.

So are you ready to learn how to do that? Here’s our active sentence. To make a passive sentence we need to use the passive tense and there are six steps to turn an active sentence into a passive sentence.

Now you might want to take a notepad out so that you can write them down as we go.

Step 1: Identify the subject, the verb and the object of the active sentence.

Step 2: Move the object to become the new subject of our sentence.

Step 3: Check the active sentence. What is the verb tense in the active sentence? This is really important because the passive voice exists across different tenses so you must check what tense the active sentence is in to make your passive sentence correct. It’s in the past simple, “The children at the cake”. Good!

Step 4: Conjugate the verb be so that it’s in the same tense as the main verb in the active sentence. We need to change our be verb to the past simple so it becomes was or were depending on the new subject and our new subject is the cake so we can choose was, “The cake was”.

Step 5: Add the past participle of the main verb after be. So looking back at the active sentence, the main verb is eat, though it’s in past simple form but can you think of the past participle of eat? Eaten, right?

Step 6: Now the last step, step six, you need to decide what to do with the subject of your active sentence. The children. In the passive voice, you don’t have to include the thing that is doing the action. You can completely remove that former subject from your sentence and that’s helpful if you don’t know who ate the cake or you don’t want to say who it was or you don’t care – maybe it’s not that important. But you can add it to the end of your sentence with the word by.

  • The cake was eaten by the children.

Let’s look at some more examples together.

  • The house was built in 1893.
  • The car will be sold by the weekend.
  • The washing had been left out in the rain.
  • Many people’s lives were saved.

Can you see the passive form here? The be verb is always there but it tells us the tense. It helps to describe when something happened and it also conjugates with the subject.

  • People’s lives were saved.
  • The house was built.

And the be verb is always followed by the past participle. We can also explain who or what did the action by adding by.

  • The house was built by her grandfather.
  • This car will be sold by the salesman.
  • The washing had been left out in the rain by her husband.
  • Many people’s lives were saved by volunteers.

Okay let’s try a new sentence together. I want you do this one with me please. Can you remember the six steps?

  • Someone has stolen my neighbour’s car.

This is an active sentence. Now can you remember step number one? It’s easy! Identify the subject, verb and object.

Step two, make the object the subject.

Step three, tell me what tense is used in the original active sentence. The present perfect tense.

Step four, you need to conjugate the be verb so that it’s in the same tense.

  • The neighbour’s car has been.

We’re using has because the subject is now in the car.

Step five, add the main verb in the past participle form.

  • The neighbour’s car has been stolen.

It’s the same verb as the original sentence, which was also the past participle.

Step six, decide do you need to include the thing that did the action? Is it really that important? Maybe not because we don’t really know anything about who did it, it’s just someone. I’d probably just leave it as My neighbour’s car has been stolen.

But what if we knew a little bit more about who or what did it, we could definitely include it.

  • My neighbour’s car has been stolen by someone.
  • My neighbour’s car has been stolen by a monkey.

So the passive form always includes the be verb with the past participle and if you need to include any information about what or who did the action, use by.

Okay, I’ve got three more examples for you to practise with.

  • We made lots of money in 2002.

Answer: Lots of money was made by us in 2002.

  • I will clean the house on Monday.

Answer: The house will be cleaned by me on Monday.

  • He built the house for his parents.

Answer: The house was built by him for his parents.

Okay now that’s enough for this lesson but there is actually a lot more to practise about the passive voice like how to use the negative forms and questions, how to include adverbs of manner to explain how something is done. But there is enough information right there for a whole new lesson so I’ll get to that.

Practise your passive sentence in comments under this video and make sure that you subscribe the mmmEnglish Channel if you haven’t already. Just click that red button down there.  Then I can let you know when I’ve got a new lesson ready for you.

Don’t forget to sign up to the mmmEnglish grammar challenge, you can do that right here. Sign up and complete the challenge before the end of May 2018* and you could win! There are t-shirts to give away, there are mmmEnglish courses and five chances to meet me on Skype for conversation practice. So come and join and improve your grammar with me.

That’s it from me today, I’ll see you next week for another mmmEnglish lesson. Bye for now!

*Competition has ended.

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