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Active and passive - Easy Learning Grammar

Active sentences

In the following example, the verb is active.
  • The postman delivers hundreds of letters every day.
The subject of an active sentence is also the person or thing that carries out the action. We use the active when the subject of the verb is the doer of the action. The active is used in most English speech and writing, because we usually want to inform our listener or our reader who or what carried out the action of the verb.
  • He hid the money under the bed.
  • The car knocked over a pedestrian.
  • I’m sending the book by express delivery.

Passive sentences

In the following example, the verb is in the passive.
  • Thousands of letters are delivered every day.
The subject in a passive sentence is not the person or thing that does the action of the verb. It is the person or thing that is acted on by the verb.
  • The injured man was helped by a passer-by.
  • The man was being questioned by the police.
  • The patient was operated on by a team of five surgeons.
The passive is made with the appropriate form of be + the past participle of the main verb.
  • We use the passive to direct our listener’s attention to the important part of our message. For instance, in the first example of this section we do not need to know who delivers the letters, so all mention of the postman is left out.

  • The passive can be used when we do not know who carries out the action expressed by the verb, or when it is not important that we should know. It is sometimes much more important to know what has happened than who or what did it.
  • The money was hidden under the bed.
  • The book is being sent by express delivery.
  • An elderly man was run over while crossing the road.
  • Roger has been given his promotion.
  • The patient was operated on.
The passive allows us to select the parts of a sentence to which we want to draw attention. It can be used when we want to focus on:
  • the agent, i.e. who brought the action about. We show the agent with by.
  • The window was broken by some boys.
  • My brother was given extra tuition by his teacher.
  • The old man was run over by a careless driver.
  • The patient was operated on by a team of top surgeons.
  • the instrument, i.e. what was used to make the action happen. We show the instrument with by or with.
  • The sorting is done by machine.
  • The safe was blown open with dynamite.
  • The old man was knocked over by a bus.
  • I was showered with presents on my eighteenth birthday.
  • the means, i.e. what caused the action to happen. We show the means with by or with.
  • The window was shattered by the explosion.
  • He was exhausted with the strain of caring for his elderly parents.
  • Spelling errors are marked with a cross in the margin.
  • He was taken to hospital by ambulance.

The subject of a passive verb

The verb in a passive sentence has the word that would normally be its object in the position of the subject. When a verb has two objects, either the indirect object or the direct object of the active verb may become the subject of the passive verb.
  • I’ve been offered a place at university.
  • We were given a second chance.
If the indirect object is mentioned after the passive verb, the sentence must use to.
  • The building has been sold to property developers.
  • The medal is awarded to students who have shown academic excellence.
Some verbs that are often used this way are: give, offer, lend, promise, sell, and tell.

Form of the passive

Passive verbs are made from a form of be + the past participle of a main verb. In the passive, the form of the auxiliary verb be indicates the tense.
  • They sell cheap computer games here.
  • Cheap computer games are sold here.
  • They took him to the police station for questioning.
  • He was taken to the police station for questioning.
  • Some verbs are only or mostly used in the passive, e.g. be born and be deemed.
  • The film was deemed unsuitable for younger audiences.
  • My brother and I were born in Wales.

The impersonal passive

This form of the passive sentence is useful when you want to report what is or was generally understood or accepted by a group of people.
  • The suitcase was found to be empty.
  • The money is thought to be missing.
  • The rumour is believed to be true.
The form it + passive + that can be used when you do not want to mention the source of a report or rumour.
  • It is reported that over a hundred people died in the explosion.
  • It is said that his income is over £200 a minute.

The passive with get

In informal English, a type of passive is sometimes made with get instead of be.
  • How did that teapot get broken?
  • Our cat got run over last week.
Get is also used to form a small set of passive verbs in contexts which are not informal (or ‘neutral’), e.g. get dressed, get married, get lost.
  • Harriet got lost on the Underground.
  • When are you two getting married?

The causative passive with have

There is another kind of verbal group that is like the passive, because the person who carries out the action of the main verb is not the person who is the subject of the clause. It expresses the idea that the subject caused or ordered someone to take the action mentioned.
  • We are having the garage door replaced.
  • She had her hair cut short.
  • They did not have the carpet cleaned after all.
It has the form: have + direct object + past participle.
Compare:
  • Ralph repaired his car = Ralph did the work.
  • Ralph had his car repaired = He paid someone else to do the work.

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