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How to Use the English Passive Voice

When saying or writing English sentences, you can use the active voice or passive voice. Most of the time it’s recommended that people use the active voice, however the passive voice is also very useful and should be used for certain contexts.

Here is a very easy guide about how the English passive voice works. Before you read this post, it is recommended that you know the tenses in English.


What is the Passive Voice in English?

In English sentences, the subject is what does an action. It is the performer.

The object is the person or thing that receives the action.

Usually, you see the subject taking the first position in the sentence, followed by the main verb, and then the object.

When you use the passive voice, you are making the object (the person or thing that receives an action) become the subject of the sentence.

Here are a few examples of sentences that use the passive voice:

Passive Voice vs. Active Voice

When something is “passive,” it means that it lets things happen to it. When something is “active,” it means that it does things, usually to something else.

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So, in English, the active voice is when the sentence brings attention to the subject doing the action. The passive voice brings attention to the object instead. Passive voice sentences can still include a reference to the subject, but the subject loses some importance compared to the object.

Many times, what this means is that in passive voice sentences, it is the object that is mentioned first, while the subject is mentioned later (or not at all).

Here are some examples of how you can change sentences between active voice and passive voice.

Active: David ate the sandwich.
Passive: The sandwich was eaten by David.

Active: Is Mom cooking dinner tonight?
Passive: Will dinner be cooked by Mom tonight?

Active: Please take off your hat when coming into the building.
Passive: Hats should be taken off when coming into the building.

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If you want to learn more about the different between the active voice and passive voice in English, check out this video from the FluentU English YouTube channel:

How to Form the Passive Voice

There are two basic ways to use the passive voice in sentences.

Passive voice with the infinitive

The infinitive form of a verb is its basic form. It is a verb when it is not conjugated, or how you would find it if you looked it up in the dictionary. In English, that usually means the word “to” comes before the verb.

In the passive voice using the infinitive, the structure may look like this:

  • Present simple tense: to + be + past participle of verb
  • Past simple tense: was + past participle
  • Present perfect tense: to + has/have + been + past participle
  • Future simple tense: to/will + be + past participle

The forms of the “to” and “be” depend on if you are talking about the past, present or future tenses. Sometimes, you may not need a “to” or you can replace it with another verb instead, such as a modal verb.

Passive voice with the infinitive suggests that the action has not yet happened to the object.

Passive voice with the gerund

A gerund is a verb in its present participle form, also known as the “–ing” form.

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When sentences use the passive voice with the gerund, they include:

           Simple/present tense: being + past participle of verb
           Perfect/past tense: having + been + past participle

Passive voice with the gerund suggests that an action, and its reaction, is consistent (typical, unchanging).

When to Use the Passive Voice

You may have heard from some people that it is better to use the active voice more than the passive voice. They might have said that the passive voice sounds “weak,” “uncertain” or even “messy.”

However, there are plenty of good reasons why you may want to use the passive voice instead, depending on the situation.

You should consider using the passive voice when:

The person or object receiving the action is important

Sometimes, it matters more to know the object than a subject. You may want to bring more attention to it because you would like to talk about it more or because someone wants to know more about it.

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It is not clear who did or would do the action

The subject, or action-doer, is not always known. When that happens, then the passive voice may be the better choice.

You do not want to point out the action-doer

Maybe you have an idea about who the action-doer is, but for some reason, you do not want to mention them. If that is the case, you want to be more vague (unclear) and use the passive voice.

This is usually a way to be more polite, safe and nonjudgmental. It can help take away blame and make the conversation more open.

You are making a general statement or fact

When you talk about general truths or opinions, you are not talking about something that needs more detail or specifics. They are things that most people understand. That is why the passive voice might be a good choice.

You are writing a scientific or research paper

The passive voice is commonly used in scientific papers when describing processes or systems. It helps you sound more objective (fair, unbiased) and formal.

When Not to Use the Passive Voice

Of course, there are also times when the passive voice may not be the best choice. In most cases, people prefer it when you use the active voice when talking or writing.

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You may not want to use the passive voice when:

It is important to know who did the action

If it is clear who the subject or action-doer is, then most people will want to know. It makes things easier to understand and people can better connect information about who did what.

You want to be honest and direct

When you use the passive voice, it might sometimes sound like you are purposely being confusing, sarcastic or hiding information. This can be especially true when whoever you are talking to already has an idea of who the subject or action-doer is. The active voice is a better way to sound more truthful and open.

You want to say or write shorter sentences

Sentences that use the passive voice tend to be longer than those that use the active voice. You may want to say things quickly and shortly, especially when you have to share important information.


That is a basic summary of what the English passive voice looks like and is used for.

You can become more used to the passive voice by doing a lot of English reading and writing. Soon, it will be very easy for you to switch between active voice and passive voice.

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