The Passive

Number 37 of 85 in B1 - PRE-INTERMEDIATE

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The Passive

Let’s start with an example which gives you a good idea of the Passive. Imagine you have to do a history project, and you read about the life of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon) in an encyclopedia. This is the sentence you see:
“Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492” (ACTIVE)

Then you finish this article and begin to read about the American continent. Now you see a sentence with the same meaning, but in a different order:

“America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492” (PASSIVE)

Why? Because in the second sentence we are talking about America, not Christopher Columbus.

If I see your sister with a bandage on her hand, I will ask you: “What has happened to your sister?” and you will have two options to answer:

“A dog bit her” (ACTIVE)

“She was bitten by a dog” (PASSIVE)

Which is more correct? Ask yourself- Did I ask you about a dog, or about your sister? We talk about your sister being bitten by the dog because she is what interests us.

How is the Passive formed?

1. Subject:
John           The Final           We           The whole family           This book

I      England           My leg etc….

2. ‘BE’ in any form:
IS        ARE        WERE       IS BEING       WILL BE       MUST BE        HAS BEEN


3.Past Participle of any other Verb:


BOUGHT       WON       BUILT        COOKED etc…..

For example:
This book WAS WRITTEN by a German soldier during the Second World War.

The Final IS GOING TO BE PLAYED this weekend.


A new bridge IS BEING BUILT.

There are sentences which have two subjects. It is better to use a Person then a thing. For example:

“We WILL BE GIVEN the marks tomorrow” is better than “The marks WILL BE GIVEN to us tomorrow”.

When is the passive used?

This is the problem for most learners. In most cases a literal translation of a passive sentence sounds very strange in another language, and it takes some time for the use of passive to be natural.

In some cases it matches:
‘Hamlet’ WAS WRITTEN by Shakespeare, and ‘Don Quijote’ fue escrito por Cervantes.

This example does not give many problems, but the following do:

In Spanish: ‘SE …’

Not always, but very often the Passive is used (“se usa”) when in Spanish it is more common to use “Se …”

¿Se vendió la casa? = Was the house sold?
Se piensa que….. = It is thought that….
Se sabrá pronto = It will be known soon.

In Spanish there are cases where the Passive can be used or not, depending on the context:

¡Cuanto se lava (Juan)! (Reflexive, not passive) = He washes himself so much!
¡Cuanto se lava (el coche)! (Passive) = It’s washed so often!

Se cortó el dedo (Reflexive) = He cut his finger.
Se lesionó en un partido de baloncesto (Passive) = He was injured

The best example I can give is a bit macabre, but it is very effective. I have always noticed the phrase “Se mataron” talking about an accident. In English “Se mataron” can be translated in three different ways:

They were killed (in an accident). PASSIVE
They killed themselves (David killed himself and Jane killed herself). REFLEXIVE
They killed each other (David killed Jane and Jane killed David at the same time). MUTUAL

Conclusion: ‘SE……..’ is very often, but not always, the Passive.

In Spanish: Impersonal “Ellos”

How would you translate this sentence in Spanish?
“Me han dicho que ….” (In French: On me dit que…)

If you say: “They have told me that…” an English speaker will immediately ask you “Who?” because he thinks he has missed a part of the conversation- you have said ‘They’ and he doesn’t know who you are referring to. You must use the Passive:

“I have been told that….”

This sounds very strange to a learner, and needs some time to make it sound natural, but is very common:
“Aqui (se) cultivan peras” = “Pears are grown here”
“Le despidieron de la empresa” = “He was given the sack”
“Le van a decir mañana” = “He’s going to be told tomorrow”

As you can see, the passive is not just a technicality or a formal use of speech. It’s true that the Passive is very common in technical and legal papers (with the intention of being more impersonal) but also in everyday spoken language.

This present was bought by my Uncle for my Aunt.
by = por for = para


I have to say that I have never liked the typical passive exam questions, converting active sentences into passive, for the simple reason that it is not useful or practical. When you are in a conversation, your mind does not use this type of exercise to form the passive. But… need to pass your exams, and it’s not your fault that the exercises have no connection with real life, so here goes- how to pass exams! (You can learn English another day 😉 )
EXAM QUESTION. Look at these Active Sentences. You have to change them into Passive:

The police have arrested a thief in the city centre.

Jane’s parents will drive her to school.

People are using computers and mobiles for everything.

The electorate would have voted the other candidate.

Scientists are going to study that phenomenon.

This is what you have to do-
1. Change the subject of the sentence:
(The Police → A thief / Jane’s parents → Jane, etc….)

2. What tense is the sentence? Use ‘BE’ in the same tense:
(…have arrested… → ….have been.. / …will drive… → …will be…, etc.)

3. Check if you have to change from singular to plural form, or vice versa:                                                                               

The Police (plural) have been…. → A thief (singular) has been…

4. What is the verb in the original sentence? Write it in its past participle form:
The Police have arrested a thief… → A thief has been arrested….
Jane’s parents will drive her…. → Jane will be driven….

5. Finish the sentence with the rest of the information:

Include: ‘….by + agent (the subject of the original sentence. If this is ‘They….’ it is not usually necessary to write “….by them.”)



A thief has been arrested in the city centre by the Police.
Jane will be driven to school by her parents.

Try the other three sentences. The answers are below.

Note: Be careful with NOT + anybody/anything/anywhere etc., or Nobody/Nothing/Nowhere etc.

The explosion didn’t damage anything.
Nobody invited Sam to the party.

In this case, follow the equation NO = NOT + Any to change from one subject to another.

Nothing was damaged by the explosion.
Sam wasn’t invited to the party by anybody.


These are the answers to the questions above:

3. People are using computers and mobiles for everything  Computers and mobiles are being used for everything (by people).
4. The electorate would have voted the other candidate  The other candidate would have been voted by the electorate.
5. Scientists are going to study that phenomenon  That phenomenon is going to be studied by scientists. Notice ‘Scientists are…(plural)’  ‘The phenomenon is….(singular)’.


Ready for these exercises? You must translate sentences 1-6, change 7-12 from Active to Passive, and 13-15 from Passive to Active. Press ‘Start’, do not use contractions (…n’t) and WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS ONLY:

1. Premio = Prize  

2. Carné de Conducir = Driving Licence    La semana que viene =  The  Next Week

3. Bomberos = Firefighters

4. El café=  The  Coffee 

5. Use ‘tell’, not ‘say’. (Click here for more information)

6. La basura = The rubbish

The Passive