Verbs: Active and Passive Voices

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In English grammar, verbs have five properties: voice, mood, tense, person, and number; here, we are concerned with voice.
Active and Passive Voice
Voice refers to the form of a verb that indicates when a grammatical subject performs the action
or is the receiver of the action. When a sentence is written in the active voice, the subject
performs the action; in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. In academic writing, it
is generally preferred to choose an active verb and pair it with a subject that names the person or
thing doing or performing the action. Active verbs are stronger and usually more emphatic than
forms of the verb “be” or verbs in the passive voice.
Active: The award-winning chef prepares each meal with loving care.
Passive: Each meal is prepared with loving care by the award-winning chef.
In the above example of an active sentence, the simple subject is “chef” and “prepares” is the
verb: the chef prepares “each meal with loving care.” In the passive sentence, “meal” is the
simple subject and “is prepared” is the verb: each meal is prepared “by the award-winning chef.”
In effect, the object of the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive sentence. Although
both sentences have the same basic components, their structure makes them different from each
other. Active sentences are about what people (or things) do, while passive sentences are about
what happens to people (or things).
The passive voice is formed by using a form of the auxiliary verb “be” (be, am, is, are, was,
were, being, been) followed by the past participle of the main verb.
Active Passive
He loves me. I am loved.
We took our children to the circus. The children were taken to the circus.
A thief stole my money. My money was stolen.
Notice how the “be” auxiliaries change the meaning of the verbs from action to condition or
from “doing” to “being.”
He remembers his grandmother. (“he” is doing an action: remembering)
His grandmother is remembered. (“she” is in a condition: being remembered)
In this way, the past participle functions very much like an adjective; it describes the subject.
The woman is pretty. She is a pretty woman
The woman is married. She is a married woman.
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York
The following is a summary of active and passive forms of all verb tenses. Remember that in
active forms the subject of the sentence is the person or thing that does the action. In passive
constructions, the verb is performed by someone or something other than the subject; often, the
action is done to the subject by someone else.
Present Time
• Simple Present
Use the simple present tense to make a generalization, to present a state of being, or to
indicate a habitual or repeated action.
Active Passive
base form or “-s/-es” form am/is/are + past participle
Professor Brown teaches at Hunter. Sonia is taught by Professor Brown.
All humans are equal. All humans are created equal.
Maria eats in the cafeteria. The cafeteria is cleaned
• Present Progressive
Use the present progressive to describe an ongoing activity or a temporary action.
Active Passive
am/is/are + -ing am/is/are + being + -ed/-en
The students are learning Spanish. Classes are being conducted in Spanish.
He is being hired to work at McDonald’s.
I am working at McDonald’s until I finish
• Present Perfect
Use the present perfect to describe an action occurring in the past but relevant to the
present, or extending to the present.
Active Passive
has/have + -ed/-en has/have + been + -ed/-en
Hunter has opened a language institute in The language institute has been opened to
East Harlem. relocate students off the main campus.
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York
3. Hunter has offered E.S.L courses for E.S.L. courses have been offered since the
twenty years. beginning of Open Admissions
• Present Perfect Progressive
Use the present perfect progressive to describe an ongoing action beginning before now and
is still relevant to the present.
Active Passive
has/have + been + -ing has/have + been + being + -ed/-en
Hunter has been awarding BA and MA
diplomas for over one hundred years.
Note: Because of awkward construction, the perfect progressive form is not used in the passive
voice. Instead, an adverb may be used to show continuing action: “We have been repeatedly
scolded for being late.”
Past Time
• Simple Past
Use the simple past to indicate a general or habitual action occurring in the past or at a
specific time in the past.
Active Passive
base + -ed or irregular form was/were + -ed/-en
Our family bought all our clothes at Sears The clothes were bought by my mother
when I was young.
On my fifteenth birthday, my uncle gave The money was given to me to buy new
me one hundred dollars clothes.
When I was in high school, my friends We were always driven to the mall by my
and I drove to the mall on weekends. friend's older brother.
In informal conversation, speakers of English often express habitual behavior in the past using
the modal “would.”
Active Passive
would + base would + be + -ed/-en
We would usually eat burgers in the food Most of the french fries would be eaten
court. before we got to the table.
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York
4. • Past Progressive
Use the past progressive to indicate an ongoing action in the past or an action continuing
through a specific past time.
Active Passive
was/were + -ing was/were + being + -ed/-en
Mary and Paul were dating in those days. One afternoon, Mary was being kissed by
Paul when her mother passed by.
• Past Perfect
Use the past perfect to indicate an action completed prior to a particular time or before
another action in the past.
Active Passive
had + -ed/-en had + been + -ed/-en
Mary's mother was shocked because she Mary had been kissed many times before
had forbidden her daughter to date. that day.
• Past Perfect Progressive
Use the past perfect progressive to indicate a continuing action that began before a past
action or time.
Active Passive
had + been + -ing had + been + being + -ed/-en
Mary had been trying to tell her mother
about Paul for a long time.
Future Time
• Simple Future
Use the future to indicate an action that is expected to take place at a future time.
Active Passive
will + base will + be + -ed/-en
Paul and Mary will marry in June. They will be married by a priest and a
or or
am/is/are going to + base am/is/are + going to be + -ed/-en
Mary is going to wear her grandmother's The gown is going to be adjusted to fit
gown. Mary.
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York
5. • Future Progressive
Use the future progressive to indicate an action in future with emphasis on continuing
Active Passive
will + base + -ing will + be + being + -ed/en
Mary and Paul will be spending lots of Note: Not used in the passive voice.
time on the beach.
• Future Perfect
Use the future perfect to indicate a future action expected to be completed before another
future action or time.
Active Passive
will + have + -ed/-en will + have + been + -ed/en
By their wedding date, they will have Note: Not used in the passive voice.
saved enough money to buy a house.
• Future Perfect Progressive
Use the future perfect progressive to indicate an action projected to have been going on for
a while before a time in the future.
Active Passive
will + have + been + -ing will + have + been + being + -ed/-en
When they celebrate their first Note: Not used in the passive voice.
anniversary, they will have been living
together for a full year.
Although active voice is generally preferred in academic writing, passive voice is acceptable
under certain conditions.
Use passive voice
• to emphasize the receiver of the action instead of the doer
Quizzes are given regularly.
Grades for all students are averaged.
Questions are encouraged.
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York
6. • to keep the focus on the same subject through several sentences or paragraphs
My sister and I grew up and went to school in Jamaica. We were
educated according to the British system. In 1997 we were given
the opportunity to come to the United States. We decided to finish
high school before leaving our own country. We were concerned
that the education in this country might not be as good as the one
we had there, and we wanted to improve our English too.
• when we do not know who performed the action:
Ray's calculator was made in Germany.
The answers have been filled in.
• when we do not wish to mention the doer of the action:
Many problems have been ignored for too long.
I was given some bad advice.
Note: This use often reveals an unwillingness to take responsibility (or place it on someone else).
Substitute: For:
“A mistake was made.” “I made a mistake.”
“Not enough has been done to “We have not done enough to end
end homelessness.” homelessness.”
“You have been misinformed.” “You are wrong.”
• when we want to sound objective or avoid using the subject “I”
Studies have shown . . .
It is well-known . . .
Hamlet is considered . . .
It can be assumed . . .
It has been established . . .
Dr. Murray and Anna C. Rockowitz Writing Center, Hunter College, City University of New York