When To Use The Active And Passive Voice In English

When To Use The Active And Passive Voice In English cover

The passive voice in English can often be difficult for learners. In this article, you can learn about its purpose and how to use it properly. We will also compare it with the active voice to get a better feel for how the passive voice can be used most effectively.

In this article, I would like to talk about the passive voice and its various forms in English. I think it is important to distinguish between the active and passive first, because by showing them side by side, it becomes clearer exactly what is meant by the passive voice. In the first few examples, I will be showing the “active.” I will then be transforming the sentences into the “passive” and showing when it is and when it is not useful to include the by part. Later, I will go through some more examples of other tenses using the passive voice.

Before we look at the passive, let us be clear what the “active” is. Let us have a look at some examples.

  • A company makes this watch in Switzerland.

The subject is a business that makes watches in Switzerland.

  • The waiter serves food at the restaurant six days a week.

The waiter is the subject and serves the food.

  • Mary ate the whole chocolate cake.

Mary, a person and the active protagonist, ate the whole cake.

  • Someone threw out the magazine.

Someone is the subject and actively disposed of a magazine.

  • My dog shredded my homework.

Here an animal, a dog, is the subject and it tore up the homework.

Now let’s see how these sentences can be made passive. We generally use the passive when the object is more important than the subject. In these examples, we’ll be using the present and past simple passive. It is formed using the verb “to be,” the present or past simple, followed by a past participle.

  • This watch is made in Switzerland.

Here we are interested in where the watch is made, especially as the make of the watch is likely to have the same name as the business manufacturing it.

  • Food is served at the restaurant six days a week (by the waiter).

Here we are talking about a restaurant. It is more important how many days the restaurant is open than the fact that the waiter serves the food. A waiter serves in every restaurant. So, we can omit “by the waiter.”

  • The whole chocolate cake was eaten by Mary.

In this case, it is useful to add who ate the chocolate cake, as the person who made it may wonder who ate it all.

  • The magazine was thrown out (by someone).

Here, it is not necessary to add “by someone.” There is no identity and it is obvious that a person did the throwing out.

  • My homework was shredded (by my dog).

Here again, it is unnecessary to add “by my dog,” as it is obvious that an animal and not a human being did the damage (unless it was a younger sibling). It could be added for emphasis to indicate displeasure in finding the homework in bits.

One thing to bear in mind as a student of English is that a key point of English is being brief. That means to only say what is necessary without adding extra and write short sentences to the point, without rambling.

In the following examples, we will look at some obvious reasons for using the passive.

  • A famous Van Gogh painting was stolen by John Smith.

As we all know, a Van Gogh painting today would be worth an enormous amount of money. It is literally an object and comes first in the sentence because generally what comes at the beginning of a sentence in English, is more important. In this case, even more important than the person who stole it.

The passive is often used to report information, particularly in the context of crime, when the authorities do not know who the guilty party is.

  • A robber went into a bank and stole one million pounds in cash.

It is unlikely that the robbery would be reported in this way. “A robber” gives no indication as to the identity of the thief. It is more likely that the event would be reported in the following way:

  • One million pounds was stolen from a bank today.

It is obvious that the money was stolen by a robber, so there is no need to mention it unless the identity of the robber is known. In this case, it isn’t.

If you say “we all need to be loved by someone,” the last part of the sentence is redundant and useless. We can safely assume that we all need to be loved by a person, as opposed to a cat or a dog (even if they too give us much love) because we are human beings. So, instead of the above sentence, we can simply say “we all need to be loved.”

I would like to offer other examples of both the active and passive in other tenses. In all the tenses in the passive form, they include the verb “to be,” the infinitive form, past participle and the gerund (+ ing) form of the verb. The first example of each pair of sentences is the active form. The passive follows and in each case the tense is similar.

  • Active: Somebody will open the door for you at 6 pm.
  • Passive: The door will be opened for you at 6 pm.

This is a future form and the time 6pm refers to a later time than the moment the statement was made. The person doesn’t know who will open the door, so a passive without the by clause is adequate.

  • Active: Somebody should have given you a password.
  • Passive: A password should have been given to you.

This is a perfect infinitive form. The password was supposed to be given sometime earlier, but wasn’t.

  • Active: Somebody has left the heating on.
  • Passive: The heating has been left on.

This is a present perfect form. The heating was not switched off in the recent past and it is still on at the time of saying the sentence.

  • Active: The car looked nice. Somebody had cleaned it.
  • Passive: The car looked nice. It had been cleaned.

This is a past perfect form. The action of cleaning the car precedes seeing it.

  • Active: Somebody is playing music to the children.
  • Passive: Music is being played to the children.

This is a progressive form where the children at present are listening to music. In this case, the music is more important than the person playing it.

  • Active: Somebody was watching a football match when I arrived.
  • Passive: A football match was being watched when I arrived.

In this form, the action of watching a match was occurring when I arrived.

As you can see, the passive form follows the active form closely. When attempting to use a passive form, it may be easier to start with the active and then turn the sentence around. It is also a very adaptable form to use in scientific and legal articles, when a more impersonal tone is favored. Using the passive may seem complicated at first. However, with some practice it should become easier.


  • Raymond Murphy, English Grammar in Use

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