The Passive Voice World (1)

[ This page is dedicated to the student who asked for clarification about the passive voice ]

Can we transform all the active sentences into the passive voice?

First of all, I'd like to draw your attention to a very important point about the passive Voice. Most students of English take it for granted that the passive voice is just another way of expressing a sentence in the active voice; which is extremely dangerous, and harmful for the learning of natural language. It is true that the most important part of our utterances in spoken and written language are in the passive voice yet this doesn't mean that they all stem from an active source: Not all the sentences in the active form could be expressed in the passive form even in school tests. A sentence in the active voice is used in specific circumstances and the passive one is also needed in other almost completely different situations, i.e. when the active voice cannot express the idea quite clearly or when it is unnecessary to mention the agent because it is either unidentified, unknown or common like (someone, people, everybody etc. ..) or perhaps without the mentioning of the agent, our sentence might have a greater effect on our interlocutor. I'll give you a simple example:

  • Compare these three pairs of sentences:
    1. You must not throw rubbish in the river.*
    2. Rubbish must not be thrown in the river (by everybody).

    1. You should correct these mistakes.
    2. These mistakes should be corrected. (by you).*

    1. You must pay the bill first, (Sir/Madam).
    2. The bill must be paid first. (by everybody).*

The examples (a & b) are the same: they express the same idea but the sentence (b) is more expressive because the speaker doesn't mean you but all people. If I have to choose between the two, I'll take the sentence (b) though the first also says the same thing. It is a matter of style and priority. I mean that the sentence in the passive here expresses the idea better than the same sentence expressed in the active voice.
The examples (1 &2) are the same , too. Yet in this case the active one (1) is far more expressive than the sentence in the passive (2). Here the speaker does not generalize; You not all the students for instance who should correct those mistakes. Here, sentence (1) is the most accurate (correct), although the sentence (2) says the same thing but in a very clumsy aberrant way.

As for the third couple of sentences (A & B). The "You" stands generally for everybody because it introduces a rule or a law which everybody must respect. Yet the first is less clear in this sense than the second. " You must pay ..." means "You: (Sir or Madam)" personally not everybody. But the second means that "The bill must be paid" before anything else can be done. The procedure is to pay the bill first and then go to the next step. You are not the only one concerned with this rule or law. It is an obligation for everybody.

All in all, the passive voice use is confined with the context. It is the context of a given situation which systematically dictates the sort of utterance to be used. It's the situation which decides whether your sentence would be expressive of what you wanted to say in the way you said it.

The problem with the pronoun "I"

Here is something I want you to concentrate on:
I bought a new shirt last week.
I read a book yesterday.
These two sentences for example can never be set in the passive voice even though they have got objects: a new shirt and a book respectively. Look at them this way :
A new shirt was bought (by me) last week.*
A book was read (by me) yesterday.*

I presume that sentences as such are not English at all. They look strange and awkward because transforming them into the passive is only a grotesque curiosity. They end up in nothing. A sentence like "I bought a new shirt last week" or "I read a book yesterday" can only be expressed this way, I mean in the ACTIVE VOICE.

Other examples
  1. I can speak English.    English can be spoken (by me)*
  2. Ahmed likes bananas.    Bananas are liked (by Ahmed).*
  3. Ali respects his parents.    Ali's parents are respected (by him).*
All of these are examples of the category of sentences that are natural and expressive only when they are used in their ACTIVE form. Once they are put into the PASSIVE, it is simply a mechanical manoeuvre which only spoils the initial meaning of the sentence. They don't belong to natural language in any way. In example (1) the agent is me: "I". So why should I use the passive except for joking. The Active sentences whose agent or (doer) is "I" are completely meaningless when they are turned into the passive form. Besides this, When the agent is known like in examples (2) "Ahmed" and (3) "Ali", why then change the sentence into the passive. The agent is the only concerned one (with liking bananas) on the one hand, and (respecting one's parents) on the other.


Not all the active sentences with objects should be altered into the passive just because they have the most important tool for change, namely the object. Even if the grammatical rule says that (The object in the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence), we should be aware of the fact that the language is used to express idea, not to follow rules. Every rule has Exceptions. And some sentences are never acceptable as passive because they naturally belong to their active form. We only use the passive form if we guess that the thing receiving the action (object) should be focused on or it is more important than the thing doing the action (subject).

By + agent

Now let's talk a little about the (by + agent) students usually like to use at the end of every "passive" sentence. Any sentence in the passive, which extremely needs (by + agent) at the end, is more an active than a passive one. In other words, it should absolutely be expressed in the active form. If the agent were so needed that we had to mention it in the passive sentence using (by + agent) why not just keep the sentence in the active form and (stop looking for our left ear with our right hand; the right ear is rather easy to reach [Moroccan Expression]).. The agent (or the doer) is not needed in the passive sentences otherwise why converting the sentence into the passive then?! We use the passive sentence basically when the agent or the doer is unknown or a common agent such as (people, someone, everybody and so on). Sometimes the agent is accepted to come last in some contexts. In this case the (by + agent) is vital to shed some more necessary needed meaning to the utterance, but not in all contexts. Look at this example.
When the gravitation law was discovered by Isaac Newton, a new gate in the field of scientific discoveries opened....
In sentences such as this one the use of (by+agent) is natural. We don't feel that it is forced in. See this one, too:
When my father was informed (by my mother) that the television set had been turned off by the cat, he got astonished and didn't just believe it.
In this complex sentence the speaker uses (by + agent) twice, the first seems forced because the informer here could be any one. It is not the subject matter; whereas the second seems normal and even necessary because the agent here is the pivot around which the whole story revolves.

All in all, the passive voice use is more suitable when the agent is vague, unimportant, unknown or simply doesn't add any meaning to the sentence. That's to say, the sentence will be expressive without it and that's why we obstinate to mention it at the end of the sentence using the phrase (by + agent).

Why the passive?

People usually prefer to express themselves or transmit ideas using the passive voice for many reasons. The major reason, however, is the fact that the "deeds" are more interesting than the "doers". And when they use the active declarative positive sentences, it is because the doer really matters. It's like this. Check the examples below:

  • These Ones
    1. "Progress is made in the field of science." (who made the progress? Here the passive form is more expressive because many parts participate in the making of the progress in question).
    2. "The poem was beautifully written." (Here the speaker is more interested in the poem than in the poet. He who has written the poem, he has written it in a beautiful way).
    3. "My watch has been stolen." (This is an informative sentence made in the passive voice because the victim is sorry for his stolen watch and doesn't care much about the thief because either the agent (thief) is unknown (which is probably the case here) or the victim of the theft is expressing his sorrow about the watch he no longer has).
  • And these
    1. SPEAKER 1 : "The window pane was broken."    (PASSIVE VOICE)
    2. SPEAKER 2 : "The boy broke the window pane."    (ACTIVE VOICE)

In these two sentences the speakers have got different intentions. The first is rather concerned with the fact that the window pane was broken no matter who had broken it. He is not really interested in the (doer) that's why he makes "THE WINDOW PANE" his subject (of interest). Whereas the second speaker is accusing the boy of breaking the window pane. He is more concerned with the agent (doer) than with the fact that the window pane was broken.
Because the first speaker's intention was to talk about the event, he ignores the doer. He might not be able to identify who the doer was! But in general, we understand that the doer doesn't matter for him or he would have said "SOMEONE broke the window pane.". The second speaker on the other hand emphasizes the boy as the doer and not anybody else. He begins the sentence with "The boy" to focus on the accused, (the agent).notably the boy.

From what has been stated above; I guess, now, we can explain why not all sentences in the active voice can be transformed into the passive and vice versa. Each form (active or passive) reveals certain meaning which the other cannot; according to one's intentions and matter of interest.

Now! As we can justify the rule that "NOT ALL ACTIVE SENTENCES ARE CONVERTIBLE INTO THE PASSIVE", we can easily understand that this rule is referring to the normal sentences which have the normal structure (Subject + Verb + Object). In what concerns the Imperative sentences, I'm very doubtful about their flexibility to convey the same meaning when they are forced into the passive "dress". Still I'll try to show how things may look like when they are just a group of words gathered together to mean NOTHING. So do please concentrate on the following ...


As far as the sentences "Do it" and "Let it be done!" are concerned, The difference is somehow huge in relation to our topic namely THE PASSIVE VOICE. However, there is something called the passive reflexive. Here is an example:
ACTIVE : Don't let the others cheat you.
PASSIVE: Don't let yourself be cheated.
But I don't think this has any relationship with what you asked about.
Anyway, Let's first begin from the beginning and have a glance at "Let":
Let it be! means, (allow to be quiet).
Let me be! means (don't worry me). As you can see these expressions are used independently. They have nothing to do with the passive voice.

  1. Before we can tackle this tough problem Let's recapitulate first:

    1. To put an active sentence in the passive, we normally need an object which can shift our attention from the subject being futile. The object should be more powerful than the subject of the active form so that we could make the transition into the passive with confidence and make the operation logical and meaningfully justified.:
      • Someone wrote the message in English.| "Someone" is a common subject which doesn't deserve its position at the outset of the sentence because it is futile as a bearer of meaning. It's weak in relation to its position. Thus The message was written in English is the most recommended because it is the most suitable.
    2. The object should be the centre of interest for the speaker:
      • The problem was solved (by us) thank God. | The agent (us/we) is not the centre of attraction but the problem effectively is. The speaker may be one of those who solved the problem.
    3. Not all active sentences are to be put in the passive voice:
      • I have a car | This sentence is to be used in its active form but never in the passive even though it has an object (a car).
    4. The choice in the use of either passive or active forms depends on one's purpose and intention. (see EXAMPLES above)

Sentences in the imperative, on the other hand, are generally complicated in transforming into the passive: As for | ( Do it! ) | If it is necessary to put in the passive, The only possible correct way, then, is ( It is to be done! ) <=> { It must be done (by you or by anybody else) } <=> [(Let it be done!*) does not reflect the order in the imperative "Do it!"]

In ( Do it! ) the agent is defined and "S/he , they " are the addressee(s). If The speaker (The one who wants it to be done) doesn't want to appoint a specific person in a group for the job, he may just say (It is to be done <> It must be done <> It has to be done no matter who will do it!). In this case what interests the speaker most is the fact that S/He wants the thing done; that's all!. He doesn't care much about the "He" or "she" who would do it.

I hope things are clear enough now!



As far as the sentences "He has been gone"* and "He has been rewarded". The verb to go (gone) is different in grammar from the verb (reward) and other ones. I mean that the verb (go) is intransitive whereas (reward) is transitive (it needs an object).
  • Examples:
    • Part One: Normal sentences in the passive.
      • Ali has been rewarded. | Someone has rewarded Ali. (because Ali has achieved a good work for instance)
      • Ali has been rescued. | Someone has rescued Ali. (because Ali was in danger.)
      • He has been invited to a wedding party. | Someone has invited Ali to the wedding party.
      • Ali has been spoken to. | Someone has spoken to Ali.
      • Ali has been sent a letter. | Someone has sent Ali a letter.
      • Ali has been understood. | We/They have understood Ali.

  • Part two: Now have a look at these examples for comparison:
    • Ali has been gone.* (incorrect because there is no agent to make Ali (go). We cannot say :Someone has gone Ali*. Do you think this has got meaning? No, nothing! It is impossible.)
    • Ali has been had.* (incorrect because this sentence is only a group of words put in the syntactical form of the passive voice but conveys no meaning. Someone has had Ali.* No, no, no!)
    • Ali has been come.* (Intransitive verbs and some transitive ones as well cannot make passive sentences; like : (go, be, have, come, become, leave, fly, etc)

  • Part three: Sentences which are grammatically correct and have meaning of some sort but are hard to accept as correct sentences except in some specific contexts.
    • Ali has been played. (Ali is not a game to play; we cannot say in the active form: (Someone has played Ali*). Nevertheless; if "Ali" is written as shown (between converted commas) to mean a name of a game, it's OK! but it is not sustainable.)
    • Ali has been drunk. (Ali is not something to drink. The subject needs more explanations so that it is taken for a drink.)
    • Ali has been read. (Ali is not a book or a magazine. Yet Ali should be a famous writer so that this sentence would have meaning. [Shakespeare has been widely read]. It's OK because we mean the plays and poems Shakespeare wrote but not his person. With Ali it is different because he is not known as a writer. And this creates some ambiguity!)

  • Part Four: Ambiguous sentences
    • Ali has been given something. | Someone has given Ali something.
    • Ali has been given. | Someone has given Ali to someone else.??!!!!


Now I'd like you to put these sentences in the passive voice::
  1. A car has run over my dog.
  2. Somebody bought the last copy of the book yesterday.
  3. Everybody thought he was crazy.
  4. I send them to Paris.
  5. People here say that tea is better for health than coffee.

Now this is how they look like after the transformation into the passive voice::
  1. My dog has been run over by a car. { normally (by a car) could be mentioned here on purpose to stress the fact that it was not a bus or tractor but a car}.
  2. The last copy of the book was bought yesterday.
  3. It was thought he was crazy (*).
  4. He was thought (to be) crazy.
  5. They are sent to Paris.
  6. It is said here that tea is better for health than coffee.(*)
  7. Tea is said, here, to be better for health than coffee.


It is said ...

In the following part I will concentrate on the two sentences marked thus : (*) because the others are somehow OK. You can see that it was only the consequence of lack of concentration on your part. But the two sentences in question are misleading even for native speakers.
Have a look at this
Broadly speaking the passive voice is evoked only because the subject of the active is not satisfying as a bearer of interesting significance for it is either vague or unknown. That's why the use of the passive is compulsory to get rid of the burden of the subject that adds no interesting information to the sentence in general.
Everybody thought he was crazy.

The subject in this sentence is vague : Who is this everybody?! Nobody knows. It represents the majority of people. We should use the passive so as to get rid of it. It is not important at all because we can say the same sentence with better meaning in the passive. Now those who use It is/was as you did yourself don't really change anything . They only replaced a vague subject Everybody by another vague subject notably the introductory It. This won't help!!!! Now look at these sentences (one is yours) and compare yourself :
  1. It was thought that he was crazy.
  2. He was thought (to be) crazy.
According to you, which of the two looks more expressive ?! (I think you should agree with me that it is the second which is the best). Now let's skip to the next:
People here say that tea is better than coffee for health

Look at your passive sentence above (*). What's the problem with it? It changed the vague subject "People" with another vague subject "It". Both of them are unidentified and unknown. Now you see that it is a little bit redundant. If we transformed it into the passive this way, look:
Tea is said to be better than coffee for health. (OR) Tea is said to be better for health than coffee. What do you think? This is the best, isn't it? The subject is "Tea" which is part of the original sentence. It is not vague .. like "it", is it?.

With phrasal verbs

Most of our students are mislead when the action of the sentence is based on a verb + preposition. They often forget about the preposition.

Someone was looking at Ali
Ali was being looked at

In the sentence above A car has run over my dog there's also a (verb + preposition) which only when they are together that they mean what it is intended. In other words: when run is alone as a verb it means something different from that it means when the preposition "over" is joined to it (Check your dictionary). Its passive form is My dog has been run over. Dropping the preposition is harmful to the meaning of the sentence. Most students drop the "preposition" because they just cannot imagine that that preposition is part of the verb, thus (phrasal verb).

A sentence with two objects

The principle which governs the transformation of an active sentence with two objects into the passive form is to use the personal object your subject in the active sentence. e.g: He sent her a letter. Here we have got the two underlined words in the sentence as indirect and direct objects. We can use both of them as subjects of the passive sentence as follows:

  1. She was sent a letter.
  2. A letter was sent to her.
According to you which of the two is the best. You may have thought of the first as the best and that's true. The rule says that a sentence with two objects the personal one (or the indirect object in this sentence) is the first to be used as subject of the passive sentence.

Put the following sentence in the passive voice:

- Somebody showed the farmer the new tractor.

The personal object is the indirect object "the farmer" in this sentence. So it is more usual in spoken as well as in written English to use it as subject of your passive sentence.

look at the following sentence:

Someone gave Dolly a box of rags.

Here you may think of two possibilities:
First: A box of rags was given to Dolly.
Second: Dolly was given a box of rags.
In theory both are possible yet the indirect object looked much more usual as the subject of the passive verb.

The Continuous Tenses

I have chosen the continuous tenses, to talk about the transition from the active to the passive forms in connection with the tenses of the sentences, to focus on the fact that the passive of the past, present and future continuous is the least used among the other tenses because there's some heaviness in using the continuous form of "to be". e.g:

  Continuous TensesActive VoicePassive Voice
1.Past continuous She was cooking a meal.A meal was being cooked.
2.Present continuousThey are pushing the car.The car is being pushed.

These tenses are avoided because they require the continuous form of 'to be' as I mentioned previously. Still other forms of the continuous passive forms are not often used. Here are examples:

  Other TensesActive VoicePassive Voice
They will be selling the house.The house will be being sold.
She would be making cakes.Cakes would be being made.
They have been selling some cows.Some cows have been being sold.
He had been singing a song.A song had been being sung.

Thus, sentences in continuous tenses are somehow complicated (being uncommunicative) to transform into the passive that's why they are rarely or almost never used.

  [   Part II  ]  

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