Active and passive verbs

Depending on the way in which you word a sentence, a verb can be either active or passive.

 

When the verb is active, the subject of the verb is doing the action, as in these examples:

France

beat Brazil in the final.

[subject]

[active verb]

More than 300 million people

speak Spanish.

[subject]

[active verb]

Jack

will take the matter forward.

[subject]

[active verb]

 

When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:

Brazil

was beaten in the final.

[subject]

[passive verb]

Spanish

is spoken by more than 300 million people worldwide.

[subject]

[passive verb]

The matter

will be taken forward by Jack.

[subject]

[passive verb]

 

Here, the sentences’ points of view have changed: Brazil, Spanish, and the matter have become the subjects of the passive verbs were beaten, is spoken, and will be taken. In the first example, you can see that the subject of the active verb (France) does not appear in the corresponding passive version of the sentence. In the other two passive examples, the former subjects of the active verbs (more than 300 million people; Jack) are now introduced with the word “by.”

 

The person or thing in a passive sentence that does or causes something is called the agent: more than 300 million people and Jack are the agents of the second and third passive examples.

 

These two different ways of using verbs are known as voices. In everyday writing, the active voice is much more common than the passive. The passive tends to be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers, often where an action or situation is regarded as more significant than who or what did or caused it:

The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A fair grading system was found to be important to all students.

 

Passive verb forms

The passive is formed with tenses of the auxiliary verb “to be” and the past participle of the main verb. Here is a table showing the passive forms for most English verbs:

Tense

Passive

Example

present simple

am/are/is + past participle

He is taken to school by his mom.

present continuous

am/are/is being + past participle

They are being bullied.

present perfect

have/has been + past participle

Have you been interviewed for many jobs?

past simple

was/were + past participle

We were told not to touch anything.

past continuous

was/were being + past participle

Our computers were being attacked by hackers.

past perfect

had been + past participle

His mother had been brought up in India.

future

will be + past participle

Arrangements will be made to move them to other locations.

future perfect

will have been + past participle

All the merchandise will have been shipped by tomorrow.

 

Read more about:

Verb tenses

Phrasal verbs

Participles


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