The No-sweat Guide to Learning the Spanish Passive Voice
Oh, the passive voice!
The very thought of having to learn something that already sounds difficult in English appears horrifying, doesn’t it?
You think of all those times when you tried to avoid using it in your own language just for the sake of clarity—and yet, here it is, daunting you in Spanish.
Relax! I am here to help.
Take a deep, calming breath.
Now let this wash over you: The Spanish Passive Voice is not as hard as you may think.
Breathe in and out as you let your mind embrace that fact.
Even our friend Michael has been able to master it, thanks to Maite’s help!
He now feels more confident when talking to her, and they even went on a couple of dates!
How, you may ask, is it possible? Well, he probably read our post on Valentine’s Day vocabulary, or maybe he has finally been able to command those tricky grammar topics that Maite helped him with.
If Michael has been able to cope with it, I am absolutely sure you can, too. Besides, the Spanish passive voice is one of those topics you need to learn if you want to get to the advanced stages of this language.
Once you realize it’s not only easy, but is also seldom used in everyday language, you will definitely stop worrying about it so much. We’ll get there peacefully with this no-sweat guide to learning the Spanish passive voice!
A Fun Encounter with the Spanish Passive Voice
I remember a situation during one of my classes when I was trying to explain the Spanish passive voice to one of my teenage students, Kuba. He was quite puzzled at the beginning because of the transformations he needed to do in order to make the passive version of an active sentence (more on this later), but once we finished, he confessed he had even had fun!
I asked him to summarize in one sentence what the passive voice meant for him, and every time I remember that conversation, I cannot help but start laughing. Here it is:
Me: Could you tell me in a few words what the passive voice means to you?
Kuba: It’s a cool way to get away with your wrongdoings!
Me: What do you mean, “get away with”?
Kuba: Well… your example with the window pane has opened my eyes. If I break a window pane and I do not want mum to know it was me, I can just use the passive voice and get away with it.
Me: Oh my god! I have created a monster…
Actually, Kuba wasn’t all that far from the truth. There are occasions when you can use the passive voice so that the final sentence is impersonal—and why not? Maybe that could save your poor soul from being punished. However, the passive voice is much more than that.
So sit back and enjoy this journey. It may be of help in case you ever break a window pane!
Active Voice vs. Passive Voice
In order to understand the passive voice, the first thing we need to do is know the difference between the active and the passive voices.
To put it simply, the active voice (both in Spanish and English) is the most common way we express ourselves. When we say or write a sentence by using the active voice, we have a subject that does an action to an object. Take a look at these two active voice sentences:
Yo escribí estas cartas. (I wrote these letters.)
Mi hermana está cocinando sopa. (My sister is cooking some soup.)
However, there are times when we need to use the passive voice. In this case, the sentence has the same nouns and actions, but their roles are different altogether.
You will get to know more about the passive voice in the following paragraphs. As for now, have a look at the passive versions of our first example sentences.
Estas cartas fueron escritas por mí. (These letters were written by me.)
La sopa está siendo cocinada por mi hermana. (The soup is being cooked by my sister.)
If you have a closer look, what has happened is that the direct objects of the active sentences (estas cartas and sopa) are now the subjects of the passive ones. Apart from that, we have made some changes in the verbs, but you will get to know more about that in the following section.
How to Form the Spanish Passive Voice
Spanish passive voice formation is pretty straightforward. All you need is a subject (which is the object in the active sentence), the verb “ser” followed by the past participle of the active verb.
Subject + ser + past participle—that’s easy enough!
You may also have an optional by-phrase (introduced by por) containing the agent. Have a look:
Estas cartas fueron escritas por mí.
Let’s break it down into parts:
Estas cartas – subject, which was the direct object in the active sentence (These letters)
fueron – the verb ser (were)
escritas – past participle of “escribir” (written)
por mí – optional by-phrase which contains the agent (by me)
Don’t be scared of words like “agent.” Agent is just a word to describe the person or thing doing the action of the verb! Easy, isn’t it?
The only thing that may get you in trouble when learning the passive voice is the change the verb undergoes, but follow these two simple rules and you will get it right every time:
1. The verb “ser” in the passive voice needs to be conjugated in the same tense as the main verb in the active sentence.
Remember that ser needs to agree in person and number with the subject! For example:
Yo como (simple present) pizza. (sg.) → La pizza es (simple present, sg.) comida por mí.
Yo comí (indefinido) pizza. (sg.) → La pizza fue (indefinido, sg.) comida por mí.
Yo comeré (simple future) pizza. (sg.) → La pizza será (simple future, sg.) comida por mí.
Yo comeré (simple future) pizzas. (pl.) → Las pizzas serán (simple future, pl.) comidas por mí.
Anyone else hungry for pizza, by the way? Sorry guys! I only promised you wouldn’t break a sweat, not that you wouldn’t get hungry! Let’s continue on to the second easy rule:
2. The past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject.
So for example, if the subject is feminine and singular, it will have the ending -a, while if it’s masculine and plural, it will end in -os:
Yo como pizza. → La pizza es comida por mí.
Yo como pizzas. → Las pizzas son comidas por mí.
Yo escribo un libro. → Un libro es escrito por mí.
Yo escribo libros. → Los libros son escritos por mí.
At the end of the passive sentence you can add a by-phrase introduced by “por.” Remember that if the subject is yo or tú, the agents will be mí and ti, respectively:
Yo como pizza. → La pizza es comida por mí.
Tú compraste el teléfono. (You bought the phone.) → El teléfono fue comprado por ti. (The phone was bought by you.)
Mi hermana cocinó sopa. (My sister cooked soup.) → La sopa fue cocinada por mi hermana. (The soup was cooked by my sister.)
There are some situations when we do not have to add a by-phrase, the most common ones being:
- When the agent is obvious by the context:
El ladrón ha sido detenido (por la policía). (The robber has been caught (by the police).)
- When we do not know who the agent is:
Es tesoro fue escondido. (The treasure was hidden.)
Mi coche ha sido robado. (My car has been stolen.)
[But by who?]
- When the agent is not important or non-specific, like alguien (someone), ellos (they), la gente (people), etc.:
La pizza ha sido comida. (The pizza has been eaten)
[It does not matter who ate the pizza.]
Cada vez más libros son leídos (por la gente, por ellos) (More and more books are read (by the people, by them…).)
- Finally, you can omit the agent if you do not want to state it, or want to get away with your wrongdoings. Try not to overuse this!
El cristal ha sido roto. (The glass has been broken.)
La cerveza ha sido bebida. (The beer has been drunk.)
Now that you know how to form the passive voice, you need to learn when to use it, and this is actually the easiest part.
When to Use the Spanish Passive Voice
As I mentioned before, the passive voice is not very often used in Spanish or in English.
You can use it when you want to be formal, both in writing and speaking—for example in technical, academic, legal or journalistic contexts:
Los impuestos han sido subidos una vez más. (Taxes have been raised once again.)
Los ganadores han sido condecorados. (The winners have been given medals.)
El ladrón ha sido enviado a prisión. (The robber has been sent to prison.)
La solución ha sido encontrada por un científico francés. (The solution has been found by a French scientist.)
You can also use the passive voice when the subject of the passive sentence is more important than who did the action:
La verdad fue expuesta. (The truth was exposed.)
[The truth is more important than the person exposing it.]
El niño fue encontrado. (The child was found)
[The child being found is more important than the person who found him/her.]
Finally, you can use the passive voice when you deliberately want to omit the agent in a sentence:
La casa ha sido destruida. (The house has been destroyed.)
El niño ha sido adoptado. (The child has been adopted.)
Avoiding the Passive Voice
Since the passive voice is not very frequently used and sometimes tends to sound awkward, we Spaniards normally resort to other constructions that, while allowing the meaning to be retained, make our lives much easier.
We have quite a few strategies we use in order to avoid the passive voice (apart from the obvious one, which is using the active voice any time we can!). The most important are the following three:
1. The Indefinite “They”
If the agent is not important, not specified or unknown, using ellos as a subject of an active sentence will do the trick. In Spanish, you do not need to say that “Your car has been stolen” (passive) when you can just say that “They have stolen your car!” (active).
So we would say:
“Me han robado el coche” (active) rather than “Mi coche ha sido robado” (passive).
“Han subido los impuestos” (active) rather than “Los impuestos han sido subidos” (passive).
2. “Hay que” and “Tener que”
If you do not want to take responsibility for your actions, or if you need somebody to do something—but you don’t want to tell them directly to do it—use “hay que“ or “tener que.”
This will make the sentence impersonal, and you won’t feel bad afterwards!
“Hay que tirar la basura” or “Alguien tiene que tirar la basura” (“The garbage must be thrown away” or “Somebody has to throw away the garbage”) rather than “La basura debe/tiene que ser tirada.”
“Hay que comprar leche” or “Alguien tiene que comprar leche” (“We need to buy milk” or “Someone has to buy milk”) rather than “La leche tiene que ser comprada.”
3. “Se” Constructions
Finally, we use “se” constructions with non-personal subjects. While it’s often translated to the passive voice in English, “se” constructions are not considered passive voice in Spanish.
This kind of construction is actually very common in Spanish, and the best part is that you can use it both in formal and informal contexts!
In order to build a “se” construction you need the pronoun “se,” a verb in the third person and a subject. Remember that the verb and the subject need to agree in person and also in number. For example:
Se habla español. (Spanish [is] spoken here.)
Aquí se venden coches. (Cars [are] sold here.)
Se alquila. (For rent.)
Se necesita camarero. (Waiter needed.)
And this is it! If you follow these simple rules, you will have no problem building sentences in the passive voice.
However, remember that we tend to not use it in everyday situations, so it’s much better to use the active voice, or resort to one of these last three tricks I presented above.
After all, why should I say, “The post has been finished” when I could just say, “I have finished the post!”?
(See how simple that is?)
Let’s close with just a few more deep breaths.
Now go on, young grasshopper, into your calm world—freshly equipped with the Spanish passive tense.