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Use of the Passive
Grammar / 17 August 2020

Use of the Passive

What’s the difference between ‘the cake was made by our in-house chef’ and ‘our in-house chef made the cake’? The first one is passive, and the second one is active. So why do we have these two forms of speech?


How to Form the Passive

Before looking at the reasons to use the passive, let’s look at how it is formed. The basic rule is that the object of an active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence, which is then followed by the correct form of the verb ‘to be’ and then the past participle of the main verb:


  • ACTIVE – Our in-house made chef made the cake.
  • PASSIVE – The cake was made by our in-house chef.


The passive can be used in various tenses.


Tense Subject ‘to be’ Past Participle Extra information
Present Simple The cake is made in our industrial oven.
Past Simple was by our in-house chef.
Future Simple will be when numbers are confirmed.
Present Perfect has been and is now ready to ice.
Past Perfect had been the day before.
Future Perfect will have been in preparation for the celebrations.
Present Continuous is being as we speak.
Past Continuous was being as the guests arrived.
Future Continuous will be being tonight to be ready in the morning.
Present Conditional would be once numbers have been confirrmed.
Past Conditional would have been fresh the day before.
Infinitive/with modals must be in time for the party.


Why We Use the Passive

While mastering the form of the passive is important, it is equally as important to learn the reasons WHY we use it. Otherwise, you could end up using it too much or in the wrong place.


To put the most important thing or person at the beginning of the sentence:

  •  The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

For formal writing or speech:

  • Your water supply has been cut off.
  • We are gathered here today to celebrate the marriage of John and Susan.

To describe a formal procedure or process:

  • The experiment was carried out in accordance with strict guidelines.
  • The water will be heated to 100 degrees.

To avoid placing blame/place blame indirectly:

  • The report was written last minute and is full of mistakes. 

When the person doing the action is unknown, unspecified or obvious:

  • My purse was stolen while I was out shopping.
  • Big Ben will chime at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
  • I am always paid on time for my work.


Word of Warning!

There are many uses for the passive and when used correctly, it is a wonderful stylistic tool to use.

A word of warning though – passive sentences tend to be longer and less direct than active sentences. Using them too frequently will make your text slow and stilted to read, or make you sound rather odd!

The trick is to incorporate them with active sentences to keep your text moving and your readers interested!

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