While learning anything, never be afraid of committing mistakes. Commit as many mistakes as you like since every unsuccessful attempt teaches you a new lesson and eventually leads you to a great triumph.#AKWords Voice: Active and Passive in English Grammar

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Voice: Active and Passive in English Grammar


I believe most of you must have had some of your students who often struggle with passive structures when they are to transform verbs into their passive forms. If so, here is a perfect solution that will help you out. In English grammar, there are several types of verbs like main verbs, auxiliary verbs, transitive verbs, intransitive verbs, stative verbs, ergative verbs, action verbs and so on that we use to serve different language functions.

Let us begin with what voice is in English grammar. In English grammar, voice means the form of a verb that indicates when a grammatical subject performs the action or is the receiver of the action. It describes the relationship between the participants in a narrated event (subject, object) and the event itself. That means voice is the relationship between the subject of a sentence and the action of the verb. There are two main types of voice in English grammar: Active Voice and Passive Voice (aka Standard Passive).

1. Active Voice (A.V.)

When the subject performs an action with the help of the main verb, the sentence is said to be the active voice. In this voice, the subject which is a performer of the action is the main focus. The subject of the sentence is the doer of the action described by the verb. It means who has done what is more important to know than what has happened to people or things.

For example:

  • Anita broke my pencil.

Here in the above example, the subject/performer - Anita, and the action broke are the main concern. The subject of a verb in an active structure governs the process as an actor or agent, and the action may take an object as its goal. We can understand this structure as:

  • The subject performs the action of the verb.
  • Active sentences are about what people (or things) do.
  • Active sentences must have transitive verbs.
  • Active voice sentences follow the structure of subject + verb + object.
  • Example: "My mother is cooking food."
To transform an active sentence into a passive form, there must be a transitive verb in the active structure which is obviously followed by an object. That means the transitive verb is mandatory in the active voice. In the abovementioned example, broke is a transitive verb that has come with its object. The object of broke is my pencil.

2. Passive Voice (P.V.)

In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action performed by the agent or actor. In other words, the subject which, in fact, is the object of an active sentence is acted upon. In this structure, the doer of the action is either not mentioned or is mentioned in a prepositional phrase usually introduced by "by" and the transitive verb is changed into the past participle form with the help of the verb "be".

For examples:

  • My pencil was broken by Anita.


  • They ran fast into the ground. (Fast in the was run. or In the ground was run fast.)
  • She speaks slowly. (Slowly is spoken by her.)
  • He slept. (Was slept by him.)

These three sentences can never be changed into passive structures because they all have intransitive verbs ran, speaks and slept, and neither do they have objects. Fast, in the ground and slowly are adverbs, not objects and slept in "He slept." does not have an object and lacks even an adverb too.

The above passive sentence is correct since it has a transitive verb with its object. However, all transitive verbs are not changed into the passive voice: some transitive verbs are seldom used in the passive. Most of these are "stative verbs" (which refer to states, not actions) like fit, have, lack, resemble, suit, etc. are not transformed in the passive.

For examples:

  • A beautiful watch is had by him.
  • She is resembled by her mother.

Note that if an intransitive verb takes a cognate object, its passive is possible.

For example:

Active: He ran a great risk. (J.C. Nesfield, 2008)
Passive: A great risk was run by him.

Active: He slept a troubled sleep.
Passive: A troubled sleep was slept by him. 

Facts to know about the passive are:

  • The subject receives the action of the verb.
  • Passive sentences are about what happens to people or things.
  • Passive sentences follow the structure of object + (aux.) + "be" verb + past participle (pp) of the main verb + by + subject.
  • "Be + PP" is generally needed to get the standard passive.
  • Example: "Food is being cooked by my mother."

As a transitive verb is essential to have a passive sentence, we need to recognize the given verb in the sentence whether that verb is a transitive, intransitive or something else before we get involved in changing the sentence into a passive sentence. The verb that always comes with an object is transitive whereas an intransitive verb seldom takes an object.

Note that we often prefer to use passive structures when we want to talk about an action, but are not so interested in saying who or what does/did it. Passives without agents are common in academic and scientific writing.

For examples:

  • The curriculum has been changed.
  • The result has not yet been published.
  • The Tajmahal was built in Agra between 1631 and 1648. 

How to Find Out Object?

Here, we have a very simple trick to be sure about the type of the given verb, and that is we make a WH-question "What?" or "Whom?" from the given sentence. Note that we are not to replace the given verb in the sentence. If the sentence has a transitive verb, "What?" or "Whom?" question (or sometimes both of them can be possible) is possible, and at the same time we will certainly get the object, too. If none of them is possible, be sure the sentence lacks a transitive verb and it cannot go into the passive.

Let us check it out.

  • Your mother teaches English.

Its WH-question "What?" is possible. It can be "What does your mother teach?" And the answer to this question is simply "English" which is the object of the verb "teaches" in the sentence. "teaches", therefore, is a transitive verb.

Other examples:

  • The teacher punishes Samantha.

WH-question is Whom does the teacher punish? and the object is Samantha.

  • My husband gave me a new mobile phone.

WH-question: What did my husband give me? or Whom did my husband give a new mobile phone?

In the sentence "My husband gave me a new mobile phone.", both "me" and "a new mobile phone" are objects of the verb "gave" which is obviously a transitive verb.


  • He played well.

WH-question: What did he play well? Or Whom did he play well?

Although What question is possible, it sounds absurd as there is no target word for "what". The "What" question of "He played well." is wrong.

  • The dog barks in the street.
  • She writes beautifully.

WH-question: What does the dog bark in the street? or Whom did the dog bark in the street?

                        What does she write beautifully? or Whom does she write beautifully?

Again, both the abovementioned WH-questions of "The dog barks in the street." and "She writes beautifully." are wrong, and the reason is both of them lack objects.

Simple Way to Remember Passive Structures

TensesAspects of TensesAux. of the given aspects
in Active Voices
Structures of Passive Voices
Aux. of the active + "Be + PP"
am/is/are + PP
Pastwas/were + PP
Futureshall/willbe + PP
being + PP
been + PP
Perfect Progressivehave/has
been being + PP (unusual)

Let us interpret the above table. "be" in the passive changes into am/is/are in the simple present and that is was/were in the simple past but "be" remains the same in the simple future because there is an auxiliary verb shall/will which always takes an infinitive form of the verb.

In all progressive aspects, "be" goes into the present participle form, i.e. being. In the same way, "be" is been into all perfect aspects. Before the "be" verb, the auxiliary verbs that are present in the active voice are retained in the passive as per the number and person of the new subject (i.e. the object in the Active Voice).

Note altogether four aspects: Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect Continuous, Future Continuous and Future Perfect Continuous are normally not transformed in the passive form because they sound odd to the native speakers, and therefore, they do not like those aspects in the passive.

For examples:

  • She has been being helped by her sister.
  • They had been being beaten by the teacher.
  • He will be being called by the master.
  • Peoms will have been being composed by me.

Pronouns in the Subject Position

Either nouns or pronouns can come in the position of the subject in the active voice. Nouns in the subject position remain the same in the passive and come after the preposition "by", but if pronouns are there, then they are written in the objective case. For instance, if there is "I" in the subject position, that is used in the objective case "me" usually following "by"in the passive.

Look at the following table:


Active Voice Passive Voices
Subjective Case →  Objective Case

Singular I → ← me
Plural We → ← us
Second Singular/Plural You → ← you


He → ← him
She → ← her
It → ← it
Plural They → ← them

Note that a noun in the subject position in the active is never replaced by a pronoun in the passive. The same noun comes after "by" even in the passive, too.

For examples:

Active: My friend had composed a beautiful poem.
Passive: A beautiful poem had been composed by my friend.
Passive: A beautiful poem had been composed by him.

Modal Verbs and "Going to Future"

When a sentence has modal verbs: shall, should, will, would, can, could, may, might, must, ought to, used to, or need, they will be retained followed by "be + pp" in the passive.

For example:

Active: Susan can solve grammatical problems.
Passive: Grammatical problems can be solved by Susan.

Active: She need not write this essay.
Passive: This essay need not be written by her.

Active: They will consult me tomorrow.
Passive: I shall be consulted tomorrow.

Active voice with the main verb "am/is/are/was/were/have/has/had " followed by "to infinitive" is changed into the passive with the help of "be + pp". The verb "be" just comes after the main verb.

For examples:

Active: The computer is to calculate data.
Passive: Data are to be calculated by the computer.

Active: Julia has to support her friend.
Passive: Her friend has to be supported by Julia.

"going to + verb" future is also changed with "be" + pp.

For example:

Active: She is going to sing a song.
Passive: A song is going to be sung by her.

Number of "aux" or "BE" verb

The number of "aux" or "be" verbs always agrees with the number of a new subject in the passive.

For examples:

Active: A tiger is chasing the buffalos.
Passive: The buffalos are being chased by a tiger.

Active: Workers were lifting a heavy load.
Passive: A heavy load was being lifted by workers.

Active: He has bought pencils.
Passive: Pencils have been bought by him.

Double Objects in the Sentence

Sometimes we have sentences with double objects as well. There are many verbs such as show, lend, offer, give, send, promise, pay, tell, refuse, bring, buy, save, build, deal, make, bake, knit, reserve, sing, cook, write, prepare, etc. can be followed by two objects. In that case, there might be confusion in picking up an object for the passive. When there are two objects in the sentence, we need to find out what type of objects they are. They can be a direct object (always refers to non-humans), an indirect object (always refers to humans), or a benefactive object (always in benefit by the action done by the subject/agent). If the direct object is taken and used as a subject in the passive, the preposition "to" is mentioned before the indirect object in the passive and "for" is used before the benefactive object. Sentences with double objects mean the direct object is compulsorily present along with either an indirect object or a benefactive object.

Verbs with direct and indirect objects:

  • He teaches us French.
  • The villagers had shown him the treasure.
  • Her neighbour lent her his bike.
  • The shopkeeper has offered the customer $5 on each purchase.
  • The manager pays the workers a handsome salary.
  • She refused her friend a loan.
  • The teacher told us a beautiful story.
  • She promised me her word.
Verbs with direct and benefactive objects:
  • He writes a letter for his sister.
  • My mother bought me a drink.
  • He cooked dinner for his family.
  • They built a house for the homeless family.
  • I made a cake for my daughter.
  • She knitted her son a sweater.
  • I reserved a table for us at a restaurant.
  • They baked cookies for the charity event.
  • She sang a song for the audience.

When a sentence has a direct object and an indirect object in the active, we can pick up either of them but it is usually safer to use the indirect object as a subject in the passive. It keeps us away from missing "to" in the passive which may cause an error in the sentence.

For examples:

Active: She gave her brother a novel.
Passive: Her brother was given a novel by her. (more commonly used) Or
Passive: A novel was given to her brother by her.

The preposition "to" is sometimes dropped as well before the indirect object. (Michael Swan, 2009)

Passive: A novel was given her brother by her.

But if there are a direct object and a benefactive object in the active sentence, only the direct object can become the subject of the passive.

For examples:

Active: The artist created a beautiful painting for the museum.
Passive: A beautiful painting was created for the museum by the artist. (not The museum was created a beautiful painting by the artist.)

Active: We are planning a surprise party for our friend.
Passive: A surprise party is being planned for our friend. (not Our friend is being planned a surprise party.)

Active: My father brought me an Android phone.
Passive: An Andriod phone was brought for me by my father. (not I was brought an Android phone by my father.)

Verb + NP + Preposition + NP (take a book from, etc.)

When there is already a direct object of the verb, the second object after the preposition cannot become a passive subject.

For examples:

Active: Children threw stones at a dog.
Passive: Stones were thrown at a dog by children. (not A dog was thrown stones at...)

Active: We took this laptop from our friend.
Passive: This laptop was taken from our friend. (not Our friend was taken this laptop from.)

Active: They stole a golden bracelet from a woman.
Passive: A golden bracelet was stolen from a woman. (not A woman was stolen a golden bracelet from.)

But the objects of the prepositional verbs can become subjects in passive structures.

For examples:

Active: She is looking at me.
Passive: I am being looked at by her.

Active: They listen to the teacher carefully.
Passive: The teacher is carefully listened to.

Active: Somebody has paid for your meal.
Passive: Your meal has been paid for.

Omission of Agents

Not all passives have agents mentioned. Agents are mentioned only in 20 per cent of passive sentences. Agents are not necessary or mentioned in the following situations:

when the agent is redundant or already known to all.

  • Students are taught by a teacher.
  • Patients are treated by a doctor.

when the agent is unknown.

  • My motorbike was stolen.
  • You will be helped out. (but I don't know who will help you)

when the agent is thought to come into a vulnerable situation, it is deliberately kept unknown.

  • I was told that your girlfriend slapped you yesterday. (The speaker deliberately hid who told him.)
  • I was informed that you cheated in the exam to score good marks. (The speaker knowingly kept who informed him unknown.)

when indefinite pronouns (-body or -one: somebody, someone, everybody, everyone, etc.), some personal pronouns (we, you) or vague subjects (people) are in the subject positions in active sentences.

  • My book was torn by someone.
  • They are often supported by us.
  • A five-day-long general strike will be called by people.

when there is no interest in agents but interest in actions.

  • The colour festival Holi is splendidly celebrated. (interested in How, but not interested in Who)
  •  He was fined $100 for the parking offence. (interested in How, but not interested in Who)

Passives of Yes/No and WH-questions

Structures of Yes/No and WH-questions are compulsorily maintained in the passives. It means the auxiliary verb is mentioned before the subject even in the passive as well, but that comes between WH-word and the subject in the WH-questions.

For examples of Yes/No questions:

Active: Is she reciting a poem?
Passive: Is a poem being recited by her?

Active: Will she post this letter?
Passive: Will this letter be posted by her?

Active: Has the hunter killed those lions?
Passive: Have those lions been killed by the hunter?

For examples of WH-questions:

Active: Who helped you?
Passive: Who were you helped by? Or By whom were you helped?

Note that when who is repeated in the passive, the preposition by comes at last, but if who is changed into the objective case whom and comes to start the passive, whom is preceded by by.

Active: What did Jack do there?
Passive: What was done by Jack there?

Active: How has he dug the field?
Passive: How has the field been dug by him?

Active: Which leg did he break?
Passive: Which leg was broken by him?

Active: How often had she phoned you?
Passive: How often had you been phoned by her?

When these questions are transformed into the passive, the structure is:

(WH-word) + aux. + subject + ("be" verb) + pp + ...?

If the active voice is in Yes/No question, WH-word from the structure is dropped, and whether the "be" verb is to be mentioned after the subject or not depends on which aspect of the tense the question is in. In the present simple (do/does) and past simple (did), the "be" verb comes into the present form "am/is/are" in the present simple and the past form "was/were" in the past simple and that begins the passive sentence followed by the sign of interrogation (?) at the end of the sentence. In other aspects of the tense, an auxiliary verb is already present; therefore, the abovementioned structure is compulsorily followed with a different form of the "be" verb as per the aspects of the tense. The "be" verb is "being" in the progressive aspect, "been" in the perfect aspect, and is retained the same with any modal verbs. The same explanation is applied to all Yes/No and WH questions.

Imperative Sentence

Imperative sentences that begin with a main verb, are changed into the passive in the following way:

Active: Call her.
Passive: Let her be called.

Active: Don't throw these books away.
Passive: Let these books not be thrown away.

The passive of an imperative sentence usually begins with Let... and its full structure is:

Let + object + be + pp + ...

But if the imperative sentence begins with an emphatic "do", "please" or "kindly", then its passive is:

You are requested to + verb + ...

In this case, there is no matter whether the sentence has a transitive or intransitive verb.

For example:

Active: Do stay with us today.
Passive: You are requested to stay with us today.

Active: Please, have your seat.
Passive: You are requested to have your seat.

Active: Kindly, go there just for a while.
Passive: You are requested to go there just for a while.

Note that in case of an emphatic "do", "please" or "kindly", the passive is possible even without a transitive verb in the sentence because we take the help of another transitive verb (i.e. request) that can carry the meaning of the emphatic "do", "please" or "kindly".

"Yourself" as an Object

We have imperative sentences with "yourself" as an object. While transforming such sentences into passive, the object "yourself" is usually omitted, and the passive sentence is often started with the "be" verb followed by the past participle of the main verb in the active sentence.

For examples:

Active: Dress yourself for the party.
Passive: Be dressed for the party. OR
Passive: You are to be dressed for the party.

Active: Prepare yourself for the upcoming interview.
Passive: Be prepared for the upcoming interview. OR
Passive: You are to be prepared for the upcoming interview.

In the passive voice, the focus is on the recipient of the action rather than the doer. In the above case, the original sentence instructs the listener to perform the action of dressing/preparing himself. In the passive voice transformation, the listener becomes the subject "You", and the action is performed on him by an unspecified doer ("are to be dressed/prepared"). The passive voice often omits the doer of the action when it's not important or relevant to the context.

But the above imperative active sentences can also be transformed into passive ones with the sense of suggestion.

Passive: You should be dressed by yourself for the party.
Passive: You should be prepared by yourself for the upcoming interview.

It seems that the listener is suggested that it would be good to perform the action of dressing himself rather than waiting for someone to come to dress him/help him in preparation for the upcoming interview.


If the imperative sentence conveys a sense of obligation/duty on the part of the listener, the passive takes the modal verb "should".

For examples:

Active: Love your country.
Passive: Your country should be loved.

Active: Obey your parents.
Passive: Your parents should be obeyed.

Active: Follow the traffic rules while driving.
Passive: The traffic rules should be followed while driving.

Sentences with "that-clause"

When a sentence begins either with indefinite/plural nouns (people) or with pronouns (we, they, nobody, etc.) as a subject along with verbs like believe, think, reckon, assume, know, hope, say, feel, fear, see, hope, and so on, followed by that-clause as an object in the sentence, this type of sentence is transformed into passive in two different ways.

a) People, we or they are replaced by it followed by "be" verb + past participle (pp) of the main verb of the sentence by retaining the that-clause.

For examples:

Active: People feel that they are very gentle.
Passive: It is felt that they are very gentle.

Active: They assume that everything will be fine.
Passive: It is assumed that everything will be fine.

Active: We hoped that they would support us.
Passive: It was hoped that they would support us.

The tense in the passive sentence is based on the tense of the main verb of the active sentence. As say and assume are in the present tense and hoped in the past tense, tenses in the above passive sentences have been maintained accordingly.

b) Instead of bringing it as the subject of the passive, the subject of that-clause can also be brought as a new subject in the passive sentence. While following this method, we need to be very careful with the verb form used in the that-clause.

For examples:

Active: We thought that she was enjoying a movie.
Passive: She was thought to have been enjoying a movie.

Active: Nobody reckoned that he was a spy.
Passive: He was reckoned to have been a spy.

Active: Newspapers say that the nation's economy is based on remittance.
Passive: The nation's economy is said to be based on remittance.

Active: People know that they have embezzled a huge amount of money.
Passive: They are known to have embezzled a huge amount of money.

Active: They believe that she will be with them. 
Passive: She is believed to be with them.

Active: We know that he was married to Samantha.
Passive: He is known to have been married to Samantha.

Active: We think that her husband is going abroad.
Passive: Her husband is thought to be going abroad.

Direct Object with an Object Complement

After some verbs, the direct object can be followed by an object complement, i.e. a noun or adjective which describes or classifies the object. In this case, the object complement cannot be the subject of that passive sentence. Instead, the object of the verb itself comes as the subject in the passive sentence.

For Examples:

Active: The manager considered him a genius.
Passive: He was considered a genius by the manager.

Active: We all regard Mr Karn as an expert.
Passive: Mr Karn is regarded as an expert.

Active: She painted her house green.
Passive: Her house was painted green by her.

Active: Most people saw him as a sort of joker.
Passive: He was seen as a sort of joker.

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