When to use passive voice in English?

All the sentences in English are either written in active voice or passive voice.

Most teachers will tell you or might have already told you that you shouldn’t write sentences in passive voice. They call it a bad habit. But that is just so wrong. Passive voice comes in handy in certain situations.

Look at the following sentences to understand the difference between active voice and passive voice:

Active: Jyoti stole my phone last night.
Passive: My phone was stolen last night (by Jyoti).

Before we understand the difference between active voice and passive voice, here are the things you must know:

  1. The agent: the agent is the doer of an action. It is the subject in active voice.
  2. The action: it is the action that the agent performs.
  3. The receiver of the action: the receiver is the object (a person or a thing) that the agent acts the action upon. It is the subject in passive voice.
  • The agent = Jyoti
  • The action = stole
  • The receiver of the action = my phone

In the active voice sentence, the focus is on the agent Jyoti, who performed the action of stealing. The writer wants to show who did the action of stealing. And that’s why the sentence is in active voice.

The second sentence is in passive voice as the writer shifts the focus to the receiver of the action. What happened last night is more important to the writer rather than who did it. The focus is given on the stealing of the phone; who did the action of stealing is not as important as the stealing of the phone.

So, the usage of active voice or passive voice depends on the message you want to deliver as a writer or a speaker. Most sentences are written in active voice (this one is in passive voice though), but there are certain situations where the sentences need to be in passive voice or are better in passive voice.

Use the passive voice in the following situations:

  1. When the doer of the action (agent) is unknown.
  2. When the agent is understood or less important.
  3. When you don’t want to reveal who did the action.
  4. When you want to focus on the receiver of the action rather than who does/did it.
  5. To keep the flow steady and develop a topic.
When to use passive voice in English?
When to use passive voice in English?

Let’s understand these situations separately in detail.

1. When the doer of the action (agent) is unknown.

When you don’t know the doer, or it is unclear who performed the action, you need to write the sentence in passive voice.

  • My account has been credited with 1000 dollars.

It is obvious that someone must have done this action, but since we don’t know who that is, we will avoid talking about the doer of the action and just focus on what has been done.

You can change it to the active voice if you add and shift the focus on the doer of the action:

  • Someone has deposited 1000 dollars into my account.
  • My father has deposited 1000 dollars into my account.

More examples:

  • The cake was finished when I reached there.
    (We don’t know who did it.)
  • Jeremy’s twitter account has been hacked lately.
  • My new car has been stolen.
  • His dog was poisoned last night.
  • The movie was beautifully directed.

These sentences are in passive voice as the doer of the action is not known to the writer.

2. When the agent is understood or less important.

Sometimes, the doer of an action is so obvious or unimportant that we often avoid mentioning it and write the sentence in the passive voice.

  • The kidnappers that had his child were arrested in Delhi.

It is obvious that the police must have performed this action. And that’s why the sentence misses the doer and is in passive voice. This is also important to note that what was done here (the kidnappers getting arrested) is more important than who did it (the police arresting them).

More examples:

  • The old lady was transferred to a hospital.
  • The papers were correctly checked.
  • I was born in 1996.

3. When you you don’t want to reveal who did the action.

Sometimes, you don’t want to reveal the doer of the action; you want to keep it anonymous. When you do that, you write the sentence in the passive voice.

  • A lot of mistakes were made in the paper.

Here, the writer is trying to hide the doer of the action: the person who has made these errors in the paper. And that’s why the sentence is in the passive voice.

More examples:

  • I was called for a blind date. (don’t want to reveal who called me for it)
  • He has been cheated many times. (want to keep the person/people anonymous)
  • A lot of silly mistakes were made in the paper.
  • She was beaten brutally last night.

4. When you want to focus on the receiver of the action rather than who does/did it.

Sometimes, the object that receives the action is more important than the doer of the action. In such cases, sentences are written in passive voice. Like I just did in the previous sentence. ūüėČ

  • The building has been decorated properly.

It is obvious that someone must have decorated the building. The focus is on the building (the object), not the person/people who decorated the building.

More examples:

  • The payment has been made.
  • The movie will be released next week.
  • This office was built last year.
  • The party had been ended before I reached there.
  • The school has been painted again.

5. To keep the flow steady and develop a topic.

  • The movie ‘Padman’ is a beautifully written movie. R. Balki has directed it.

Notice that in the first sentence, the focus is on the noun the movie Padman, but in the second sentence, it seems to be shifting to the noun R.Balki though the writer is still focusing on the movie. This breaks the flow of the message. In order to keep the flow steady and stay on the same topic, the subject of the second sentence has to be the movie.

The movie ‘Padman’ is a beautifully written movie. It has been directed by R.Balki.

Now, the focus of these two sentences is the same: the movie Padman. To make sure it happened, the writer wrote the second sentence in passive voice.

How to write a sentence in passive voice?

A sentence that is written in passive voice has the verb BE (is, am, are, was, were, being, been) and a past participle (V3) in it.

Different tenses will have different types of the verb BE. Here are the list of 8 tenses that can be written in passive voice:

TensesActive voicePassive voice
Simple present tenseEveryone loves her.
She is loved (by everyone).
Present continuous tenseThey are making a startup plan.A startup plan is being made (by them).
Present perfect tenseMy friend has opened a free school in this area.A free school has been opened in this area (by my friend).
Simple past tenseThey closed the hall before 10pm.The hall was closed before 10 pm (by them).
Past continuous tense Roni was cooking the food before I called.The food was being cooked when I called (by Roni).
Past perfect tenseShe has written the book before the year ended.The book had been written before the year ended (by her).
Simple future tenseJon will buy that car next week.That car will be bought next week (by Jon).
Future perfect tenseJon will have eaten the food by that time.The food will have been eaten by that time (by Jon).
Active and passive voice of different tenses

Conclusion

Writing sentences in passive voice is not bad writing. You should know when and when not to use passive voice in sentences.

When should you use passive voice?

Write sentences in passive voice when the object of the verb is more important than the doer of the action itself. And when you do that, the doer of the action is generally avoided, but it does not mean you should never mention the doer of the action; add the doer to your passive voice sentence if that’s important for rendering the right meaning of the sentence.

Examples:

  • This paper has been written by R. Nair. (The focus of the sentence is the paper, and it is also important, but not the focus, to mention who’s written it.)
  • The paper had been written. (The focus of the sentence is the paper, and the doer who worked onto the paper is not important to mention as we may already know him.)

When should you not use passive voice?

We should not use passive voice when the focus of the sentence is the person or the thing that does an action in a sentence. If the doer of an action is more important than what or whom has received it, write the sentence in passive voice.

Examples:

  • Ashish is taking the next class. (The writer is focusing on the person, Ashish, who’s doing the action)
  • Riya called me last night. (The sentence is in active voice as Riya is the center of the attention here.)

Practice exercise of active and passive voice!

Try changing the following sentences in active voice:

  • Everyone loves you a lot.
  • They have cleaned the rooms.
  • The staff is checking the paper right now.
  • Someone stole our papers last night.
  • Has anyone transferred the money yet?
  • They have accepted your offer.
  • The commission will score the fight on the Ali score system.

Answers:

  • You are loved a lot (by everyone).
  • The rooms have been cleaned (by them).
  • The papers are being checked right now.
  • Our paper was stolen last night.
  • Has the money been transferred yet?
  • Your offer has been accepted.
  • The fight will be scored on the Ali score system.

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