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Advanced - The Passive

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Thursday, 03 June 2010

English grammar lesson on-line for advanced level English students - In this advanced lesson we look at how to create the different passive forms from active sentences by changing the position of the agent and the structure of the verb.

Introduction - The Passive

The general relationship between the active form and the passive form is: .

X does Y

Y is done by X

The active and passive forms are:

Verb Form Active Passive
present simple moves is moved
past simple moved was moved
present perfect simple has moved has been moved
past perfect simple had moved had been moved
future simple will move will be moved
future prefect simple will have moved will have been moved
present continuous is moving is being moved
past continuous was moving was being moved
infinitive to move to be moved
perfect infinitive to have moved to have been moved
gerund moving being moved

N.B. it is possible to form the passive for other continuous verb forms

e.g. present perfect continuous passive - have been being repaired

However they are not usually used and it is preferable to use the active instead.

The subject of any sentence (a noun, a noun phrase or pronoun which governs the verb) is the subject because it is what we are mainly interested in; it is what we are talking about.

  • The meeting (subject) will be held in Kyoto
  • A lot of books (subject) have been written about this subject.

It is true that someone (or some group) will hold the meeting, someone (a lot of different people) wrote the books, but our main interest is not in who or what performed the action (hold, write)), but in the result of the action itself (the meeting, a lot of books).

Forming passive sentences

1) TO GIVE

Verbs such as GIVE take both a DIRECT OBJECT and an INDIRECT OBJECT in two patterns:

A - VERB + INDIRECT OBJECT + DIRECT OBJECT
B - VERB + DIRECT OBJECT + PREPOSITION + INDIRECT OBJECT

These verbs have two corresponding passives:

ACTIVE
PASSIVE

A - Alice gave us that vase

B - Alice gave that vase to us

We were given the vase (by Alice)

That vase was given (to) us (by Alice)

The passive form you choose depends on which is more appropriate in a particular context. If we specify an agent, this follows by at the end of the clause.

In informal context "to" can be left out in the second passive pattern. Many of these verbs are to do with "giving", e.g. award, hand, lend, offer, send, throw and "telling", e.g. ask, read, teach.

2) Verbs that can't be followed by INDIRECT OBJECT + DIRECT OBJECT in the active have only one passive form:

A - VERB + DIRECT OBJECT + PREPOSITION + INDIRECT OBJECT

ACTIVE
PASSIVE

A - He explained the problem to me

 

The problem was explained to me

(not "I was explained the problem")

Many of these verbs are to do with reporting what was said or thought, including announce, demonstrate, describe, introduce, mention, propose, report, suggest.

3) Verbs followed by OBJECT + COMPLEMENT in the active have only one passive form:

A - VERB + OBJECT + COMPLEMENT

ACTIVE
PASSIVE

A - They elected their president

 

She was elected president

 

Other verbs like this are to do with giving someone a particular position, e.g. appoint, declare, make, nominate, vote, and "naming", e.g. call, name, title.

Passive verb forms

If an agent is mentioned, it goes in a prepositional phrase with by after the verb. According to the tense, passive sentences are formed as follows:

Present Simple
Examples

Active: tell(s)

Passive: am/is/are told

John tells me that you're thinking of leaving

I'm told (by John) that you're thinking of leaving

Past Simple
Examples

Active: sold

Passive: was/were told

John told me that you were leaving

I was told (by John) that you were leaving

Present Perfect
Examples

Active: have/has told

Passive: have/has been told

John has told me that you are leaving

I have been told (by John) that you are leaving

Past Perfect
Examples

Active: had told

Passive: had been told

John had already told me that you were leaving

I had already been told (by John) that you were leaving

Present Continuous
Examples

Active: am/is/are telling

Passive: am/is/are being told

John is always telling me that you are leaving

I am always being told (by John) that you are leaving

Past Continuous
Examples

Active: was/were telling

Passive: was/were being told

John was always telling me that you were leaving

I was always being told (by John) that you were leaving

Future Simple
Examples

Active: will tell

Passive: will be told

I will tell John that you are leaving

John will be told (by me) that you are leaving

Future Perfect
Examples

Active: will have told

Passive: will have been told

By tomorrow I will have told John that you are leaving

By tomorrow John will have been told (by me) that you are leaving

Present Perfect Continuous
Examples

Active: has/have been telling

Passive: has /have been being told (rare)

John has been telling me for ages that you are leaving

I have been being told (by John) for ages that you were leaving

Modal verbs with passives

Active: should/could/might/ought to...tell

Passive: should/could/might/ought to...be told

You should tell John

John should be told

Active: should/could/might/ought to...have told

Passive: should/could/might/ought to...have been told

You should have told John

John should have been told

Active: should/could/might/ought to...have been telling

Passive: should/could/might/ought to...have been being told

You should have being telling John (while I was outside)

John should have been being told (while I was outside)

Other passive verb forms are very rare.

Uses of the Passive

The Passive is used to make the object of the verb into the subject of the sentence.

  • A number of attempts have been made to raise the Titanic.
  • The meeting has been postponed until further notice.

There are some situations where passive is typically chosen rather than the active.

1) In an active sentence we need to include the agent as subject; using a passive allows us to omit the agent by leaving out the prepositional phrase with by. Consequently, passive is preferred when the agent is not known, when it is "the people in general", if it is unimportant or obvious:

  • My office was broken into when I was on holiday. (the agent is unknown)
  • An order form can be found on page 2. (the agent is referred to the people in general)
  • He is ought to be somewhere in Russia. (it is unimportant)
  • She is being treated in hospital. (it is obvious that the agent is "the medical staff")

2) In factual writing, particulary in describing procedures or processes, we often wish to omit the agent and use passives:

  • Nuclear waste will still be radioactive even after 20,000 years, so it must be disposed of very carefully. It can be stored as a liquid in stainless-steel containers which are encased in concrete. The most dangerous nuclear waste can be turned into glass.

3) In serious and formal writing and speaking, e.g. in description in encyclopaedias, reports of meeting and in reporting experiments:

  • A drop of bromine was placed in a gas-jar with a greased rim, and a similar jar was placed on top of it. A piece of paper was held behind the jars, and the results were observed.

4) In informal context, particularly in conversation, we often use active sentences with a subject such as people, somebody/someone, something, they, we, or you even when we do not know who the agent is. In more formal context, we prefer to use a passive so that we can avoid any mention of an agent. For example:

  • They're installing the new computer system next month. (informal)
  • The new computer system is being installed next month. (more formal)

5) Expressions of the type THEY/PEOPLE + SAY/BELIEVE etc. are frequently used in the passive in formal speaking and writing:

  • I am considered to be an expert on cricket.
  • The report is expected to be published in May.
  • Leonardo da Vinci is said to have designed the first submarine.

6) Notices. These are common examples of notices which use the passive:

  • ENGLISH SPOKEN
  • NO CHANGE GIVEN
  • CHILDREN UNDER 14 NOT ADMITTED
  • CHEQUES NOT ACCEPTED WITHOUT A BANKER'S CARD
  • SECOND-HAND BOOKS BOUGHT AND SOLD
  • TO BE TAKEN THREE TIMES A DAY BEFORE MEALS
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Last modified on Tuesday, 14 March 2017 16:27

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