* Compare the following two sentences:

Your little boy broke my kitchen window this morning. That window was broken by your little boy.

In the first sentence, the person who did the action (your little boy) is the subject, and comes first; then we say what he did ( with the verb, broke) and what he did it to (the object, my kitchen window). In the second sentence, the opposite happens: we start by talking about the window (the object of the first sentence has become the subject of the second); then we say what was done to it, and who this was done by. The first kind of sentence, and the kind of verb form used in it, are called ‘active’. The second kind of sentence, and the kind of verb-form used, are called ‘passive’.

* The choice between active and passive constructions often depends on what has already been said, or on what the listener already knows. We usually like to start sentences with what is already known, and to put ‘new’ information later in the sentence. In the first example above, the listener does not know about the broken window, so the speaker makes it the object of the sentence. In the second example, the listener knows about the window – it is being pointed out to him, he can see it- so the speaker uses a passive construction; in this way he can put the window first, and keep the new information (who broke it) for later in the sentence. Another example:

John’s just written a play.
This play was probably written by Marlowe.

In the first sentence, John is somebody that the hearer knows; the news is that he has written a play. The speaker prefers to put this at the end, so he begins with John and uses an active verb. In the second sentence, a passive structure allows the speaker to begin with the play (which the hearer already knows about), and to put the news (who wrote it) at the end.

* We often prefer to put longer and ‘heavier’ expressions at the end of a sentence, and this can be another reason for choosing a passive structure. Compare:

Mary’s behaviour annoyed me. (Or: I was annoyed by Mary’s behaviour.) I was annoyed by Mary wanting to tell everybody else what to do.

The first sentence can easily be active or passive. But if the second sentence was active, the subject would be very long (Mary wanting to tell everybody else what to do annoyed me). In this case, a passive structure is more natural.

Passive structures are also used when we want to talk about an action, but we are not interested in saying who (or what) did it.

Those pyramids were built around 400 A.D.
Too many books have been written about the second world war.

The passive is especially common in descriptions of processes or rules, where the language used is formal and the personal element is to be avoided.

In football the ball may be kicked or headed; it must not be handed.

Consequently, the Passive is very often used in business or technical English.

The decision on next year’s budget will be made soon.


Copper sulphate is made by mixing coper oxide and sulphuric acid.


Passive verb forms are made with the different tenses of to be, followed by a past participle. The tenses, and the rules for their use, are the same as for active verb-forms. Note, however, that we usually avoid saying be being and been being, so that future progressive and perfect progressive passive tenses are very uncommon.

Present simple:
Present progressive:
Past simple:
Past progressive:
(Present perfect progressive): Past perfect:
(Past perfect progressive): Future:
(Future progressive):
Future perfect:
(Future perfect progressive):

Going to structure: Modal structures:

English is spoken here.
Excuse the mess, the house is being painted.
I wasn’t invited, but I’ve come anyway.
I felt as if I was being watched.
(How long has the research been being done?) I knew why I had been chosen.
(I wondered how long I’d been being followed.)

You’ll be told in advance
(You’ll be being told in the near future.)
Everything will have been done by the 26th.
(By next Christmas, that bridge will have been being built for three years.)
Who’s going to be invited?
He ought to be shot. You might have been hurt.

Note the passive infinitive – to be invited, to be shot – and the perfect passive infinitive – (to) have been hurt – in the last three examples. Passive -ing forms also exist.

She likes being looked at
Having been rejected by everybody, he became a monk.


In sentences like The trouble was caused by your mother, the part of the sentence introduced by by is called the agent. The agent in a passive sentence is the same person or thing as the subject of an active sentence. Compare:

I was shocked by her attitude Her attitude shocked me.

The agent is only expressed when it is important to say who or what something is done by. In most passive sentences, there is no agent.

A new supermarket’s just been opened. I’m always being asked for money.

After some past participles which are used like adjectives. other prepositions are used instead of by to introduce the agent.

We were worried about (or by) her silence?
I was excited at (or by) the prospects of going abroad.
Are you frightened of spiders?
With is used when we talk about an instrument (tool, etc) which helps the agent to do an action.


He was shot (by the policeman) with a revolver. The room was filled with smoke.
The lock was covered with paint.


When a verb + preposition + object combination is put into the passive, the preposition will remain immediately after the verb:

Active: Passive: Active: Passive:

We must write to him.
He must be written to.
You can play with these cubs quite safely. These cubs can be played with quite safely.

Similarly with verb + preposition / adverb combinations:

Active: Passive: Active: Passive:

The threw away the old newspapers. The old newspapers were thrown away. He looked after the children well.
The children were well looked after.


Many verbs, such as give, send, show, lend, can be followed by two objects, which usually refer to a person and a thing (indirect and direct object, respectively). These are called di-transitive verbs.

She gave her sister the car INDIRECT O. DIRECT O.

When these verbs are used in the passive, there are two possibilities:
Her sister was given the car. (The indirect object -person- has become the subject of passive verb.)

The car was given to her sister. (The direct object -thing- has become the subject.)

Most often in such cases the person becomes the subject of the passive verb.

I’ve just been sent a whole lot of information.
You were lent ten thousand pounds last year.
We were shown all the different ways of making whisky.

Other verbs used like this are pay, promise, refuse, tell, offer.

IV.6. SENTENCES WITH OBJECT COMPLEMENTS After some verbs, the direct object can be followed by an object complement – a noun or adjective which

describes the object.

Queen Victoria considered him a genius. They elected him president.
We regarded him as an expert.

Most people saw him as a sort of clown. The other children called him stupid.
I made the room beautiful

These sentences can become passive.

He was considered a genius (by Queen Victoria). He was elected president.
He was regarded as an expert.
He was seen as a sort of clown.

He was called stupid.
The room was made beautiful.

IV.7. SENTENCES WITH CLAUSE OBJECTS The object of a sentence can be a clause.

People believed that witches communicated with the devil Nobody knew whether there was gold left in the mine.

Passive sentences can be made with that or whether clauses as subjects. It is usually used as an

introductory subject.

It was believed that witches communicated with the devil. It wasn’t known whether there was gold left in the mine.


Many verbs can be followed by an object and infinitive.

She asked me to send a stamped addressed envelope. I consider Moriarty to be dangerous.
Everyone wanted Doris to be the manager.
We like our staff to say what they think.

Sentences like these cannot usually be made passive. We cannot say, for example, *Doris was wanted to be the manager or *Our staff are liked to say what they think.

There are a few exceptions:

1) Verbs of asking, ordering, allowing etc can usually be used in the passive with a following infinitive. I was asked to send a stamped addressed envelope.
She was told not to come back.
We are allowed to visit Henry once a week.

Other verbs in these group: advise, expect, forbid, mean, order, request, require, teach. 2) Many verbs of thinking, saying, etc can be used in the same way.

Moriarty is considered to be dangerous. He is known to be violent.

Other verbs in this category: believe, feel, presume, report, say, understand.
Note that with say the infinitive structure is only possible in the passive. Compare:

They say that he is famous in his own country. (Not: *They say him to be …) He is said to be famous in his own country.

With the other verbs in this group, too, the that-structure is more common than the infinitive structure in active sentences.

3) A few verbs are followed, in the active, by an object and an infinitive without to. Examples are hear, help, make, see. In the passive, the to-infinitive is used. Compare:

Active: I saw him come out of the house. Passive: He was seen to come out of the house. Active: They made him tell them everything. Passive: He was made to tell everything.


Not all verbs have passive forms. Intransitive verbs cannot be used in the passive: since they do not have objects, there is nothing to act as a subject of a passive verb. Some transitive verbs cannot be used in the passive, at least in certain of their meanings. Most of these are ‘stative’ verbs (verbs which refer to states, not actions, and which often have no progressive forms). Examples are fit, have, lack, resemble, suit.

They have a nice house. (But not: *A nice house is had…)
I was having a bath. (But not: *A bath was being had…)
My shoes don’t fit me. (But not: *I’m not fitted by my shoes.)
Sylvia resembles a greek goddess.(But not: *A Greek goddess is resembled by Silvia.) Your mother lacks tact. (But not: *Tact is lacked …)

Not all prepositional verbs (see IV.8) can be used in passive structures. For example, we can say That chair’s not to be sat on or The children have been very well looked after, but we can’t say *I was agreed with by everybody or *The room was walked into. There are no clear rules about this; the student has to learn, one by one, which expressions can be used in the passive.

December 20, 2015

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