A Refresher on the Passive Voice
by Tanju Deveci

For many students, grammar seems to be the most important aspect of language learning, which I have personally observed as well in different teaching contexts I have been involved in. I have noticed that students wishing to improve their language skills turn to grammar invariably. Though certain aspects of English grammar are comparatively easy to grasp, some others are likely to cause learners difficulties, one of which is the Passive Voice (P.V.).

"Why do I need to make my language more complicated while I can say things more quickly?" once said one of my learners. It is not that I disagree with him, but I feel that we language teachers may take our learners' interest in such 'complicated' aspects of grammar for granted and expect them to grasp them with ease. Personally, I have had instances where I could not answer some of my students' questions about P.V. on the spur of the moment. Therefore, I feel it might be useful to have a refresher on it.

Meaning and contexts

Oftentimes, my learners have tended to expect me to give them grammatical formulas, which I avoid since I believe that meaning needs to come before form; therefore I'd like to focus on the meaning and context of P.V. first here. As Thomson and Martinet (2011) state, P.V. may be preferred when:

a) it is not necessary to mention the doer of the action.

b) we do not know (exactly) who did the action.

c) the subject of the active verb would be 'people'.

d) the subject of the active sentence would be the indefinite pronoun one.

e) we are more interested in the action than the person who does it.

f) we avoid an awkward or ungrammatical sentence, which is usually done by avoiding a change of subject as in the example below.
"When she was ill, neighbours looked after the children" would be better expressed:
"When she was ill, the children were looked after by neighbours."

g) a speaker may use it to disclaim responsibility for disagreeable announcements.


Azar (2003) states that in the passive, 'the object' of an active verb becomes 'the subject' of the passive verb as in the following example:

Mary helped the boy. >>>> The boy was helped by Mary.

Eckersley & Eckersley (1985) say P.V. is formed by using the appropriate tense of the verb 'to be' + the past participle of the verb.

The negative form is produced by putting 'not' after the verb 'to be'. Contraction is possible with the negative (e.g. isn't¸ wasn't, etc.). With present passive, 'be' can be contracted with the subject.

In most cases, it is not necessary to mention the agent. However, if needed the expression 'by' precedes the agent: This book was written by Camus.

Things to be careful with

What makes the Passive Voice is the irregularities that surround it. First of all, it is important to note that although most tenses can have their passive forms, future progressive passives and perfect progressive passives are unusual.

In addition, Swan (2005) warns that some verbs are not used in passive. Passive structures are impossible with intransitive verbs like 'die' or 'arrive', which can't have objects, because there is nothing to become the subject of a passive sentence. Also, some transitive verbs are seldom used in the passive. Most of these are 'stative verbs'. Examples are 'fit', 'have', 'lack', 'resemble' and 'suit'.

Moreover, some prepositional verbs are mainly used in the active. For example;

Everybody agreed with me, but not I was agreed with everybody.

There are no clear rules about this, and students have to learn by experience which verbs cannot be used in the passive. However, Eckersley and Eckersley (1985) point out that certain intransitive verbs can be made into transitive by the addition of a preposition, and these verbs can be used in the Passive Voice, as in the following example.

His plan was laughed at by everyone.

P.V. would not be possible for some transitive verbs; for example:

I have a book would not be used passively as A book is had by me.

Reflexive verbs also have to be mentioned. There is a reflexive verb when the person or thing doing the action is also the 'victim' of the action. For instance 'He' in He cut himself. both the subject of the action, and the object of it. In such occasions, passive is not possible.

Thomson and Martinet (2011) say that 'get' is sometimes used instead of 'be', and with 'be' passives, the agent can be specified in an optional by phrase. Jacobs (2007) states that not using a 'by phrase' makes it easy to confuse 'get' passives with uses of 'get' before a past participle or an adjective. In the following example, 'get' occurs before adjectives and means "become":

Leslie got angry at the officer.

Jacobs (2007) warns that the problem for learners increases when we look at constructions like the following:

Kermit got confused by his explanation.

In the above example, the 'by phrase' looks very much like an agent phrase in a passive.

Potential learner mistakes

One area which can cause students difficulties is the use of pseudo-passive sentences. Jacobs (2007) mentions that such sentences look at first glance somewhat like passives but actually have predicate adjectives instead of the past participles of verbs. Compare the following two sentences.

The door was opened. vs The door was open.

The first sentence is simply a passive clause without a 'by phrase'. The second is not a passive clause. The speaker is simply making an assertion about the state of the door. These kind of sentences may confuse the learners.

Learners can also be confused by adjectives ending in 'ed' and 'ing'. Some mistakes I commonly hear is: says typical mistakes are:

I was boring in the lesson.

Lewis (1986) says that sometimes, although the doer is unknown, both an active and a passive sentence, with the same referential meaning are possible:

My camera has been stolen.

Somebody has stolen my camera.

In this case, in order to produce an active sentence an artificial or dummy subject is introduced 'somebody'. So giving rules like 'when the doer is unknown we use the Passive Voice' could confuse students.

Thomson and Martinet (2011) point out that 'get' is sometimes used instead of 'be', and with 'be' passives, the agent can be specified in an optional by phrase. Jacobs (2007) notes that not using a 'by phrase' makes it easy to confuse 'get' passives with uses of 'get' before a past participle or an adjective. In the following example, 'get' occurs before adjectives and means "become":

Leslie got angry at the officer.

Jacobs (2007) warns that the problem for learners increases when we look at constructions like the following:

Kermit got confused by his explanation.

In the above example, the 'by phrase' looks very much like an agent phrase in a passive.

Causative can also be easily confused with P.V. For example,

I will have my car serviced.

Though 'have' in this example serves to form causative, students can easily confuse it with P.V. A possible use of a 'by phrase' at the end of the sentence is likely to further complicate the structure.

Another difficulty can be caused by newspaper headlines and public signs which tend to reduce the Passive Voice as in the examples below:

A Cat Trapped in the Chimney for 12 Days

Smoking Forbidden

Aitken (1992) lists some other potential learner mistakes as follows:
a) Problems arising from the formation of past participles may be transferred to the passive: It was buyed.

b) Where the past participle has an unstressed 'ed' ending, students may hear and reproduce a base form of the verb in place of the past participle, especially before by.

c) Learners may hear, understand, and produce being for been.

d) Learners may understand the third person contracted form 'he's' or unstressed 'he was' as 'he has'.

e) The present participle of the verb may be substituted for the whole passive construction: I am being biting for I am being bitten.

f) Both the order and form of auxiliaries are often confused.

Teaching the Passive Voice

Despite the problems mentioned above, P.V. seems to be a popular structure among teachers partly because teaching it is very likely to give them a feeling of satisfaction since students generally feel that they have learned 'more' grammar. However, the question is more about how to go about teaching it. Different techniques, methods and approaches can be adopted in teaching P.V. Some of these are:

a) The Grammar Translation Method:

In this method, which focuses heavily on grammar teaching through translation activities, accuracy is given the priority and lessons are more reading and writing skills oriented with little attention given to speaking and listening skills (Griffiths and Parr, 2001).

Regarding the Passive Voice, learner mistakes on meaning and form can be avoided by constantly referring to students' native tongue to ensure the meaning. In this way, possible L1 and L2 disagreements can be prevented. Passives done with the verbs 'get' and 'have' could be explained clearer.. However, in a class where there are speakers of different languages this method would not simply work.

In the case of newspaper headlines and signs with reduction in the Passive Voice, students may be asked to make translations from their mother tongues into English or vice versa.

b) The Audio-lingual Approach:

This approach is based on the idea that languages are primarily learned through habit formation and therefore puts a heavy emphasis on memorization of phrases. For this to happen effectively, the teacher is to teach structures one at a time using drills (Zafar, 2008).

In this method, students' pronunciation mistakes on past participle, understanding of 'been' not as 'being', and contractions in the Passive Voice can be avoided strictly. However, students who do not really see the written form may never be clear if they have mastered the meaning and function.

For intermediate students, simple passive sentences can be initially presented to the students orally, and they can be asked to repeat them several times. After they master the sentence, substitution drills can be done. Then the teacher can put some of these sentences in a dialogue and have the students memorize it to a role-play when they are ready.

c) The Deductive Method:

Gollin (1998) explains that in this method the teacher starts with a concept rule. Then he provides examples as proof of the concept rule. Then he shows examples and non-examples, which do not show essential characteristics of the concept rule. After this, the students are asked to categorize the examples or non-examples by explaining why they do or do not fit the concept rule. As seen, this method would put emphasis on possible student mistakes about the Passive Voice.

For a review activity the following can be done with upper-intermediate students:

Teacher reminds students of the Passive Voice rule and gives various passive sentences in various tenses. Then he asks them the concept rule again. This time he gives them another non-example sentence such as one in present perfect continuous tense. Then, he gives out several examples and non-examples which contain tenses, intransitive or stative verbs, some prepositional verbs, specific transitive verbs such as 'have' or reflexive verbs. They are asked to categorize them by justifying their choices.

d) Inductive Method:

Nunan (1999) states that inductive method is based on inductive reasoning, which encourages learners to apply a general rule to other individual instances. In this method, learners discover rules through analysis of examples. The teacher who adopts this method provides examples which have the same concept and concept rule in common.

However, the concept rule is not explicitly stated. Students will attempt to find it through the examples near the end of the lesson. The teacher, through questioning of the students, elicits characteristics of the concept rule. Through these exercises, students should begin to understand the common concept found in all of the examples. Then he shows the students examples and non-examples of the same concept. Students must categorize the examples or non-examples by explaining why do or do not fit the concept rule they are discovering.

This method places emphasis on the things mentioned in deductive method. However, the students are more active in learning the concept rules.

In an advanced class, the teacher can show students passive sentences in different tenses. By asking students questions, teacher elicits the rule 'to be + past participle' for the Passive Voice. This time he gives them one future progressive and perfect progressive sentence in active voice asking them if these could be made into the Passive Voice. After trying, students learn that this is not possible. He does the same thing with intransitive, stative, prepositional and reflexive verbs. Finally, he gives out different examples containing example and non-examples and they categorize them by justifying their answers.

e) The Guided Discovery Strategy:

This strategy shares common grounds with inductive approach and aims to get the learners to explore a problem or a situation in context to formulate conclusions. In doing so, learners are actively involved in the learning process.

In this strategy, the meaning of P.V. and function can also be stressed by having students think about the meaning of the structure. With the formulation part, teacher can help them discover form and punctuation rules.

With an intermediate class, the following presentation could be done.
Role-play of a crime can be acted out in class putting stress on the action rather than the doer. Teacher elicits sentences passive sentences from students with some help if necessary. In this stage, he concentrates on the meaning and function. Then, he elicits the formula with the aim of focusing on form. Following this, he gives out a newspaper article about a natural disaster and asks the students to fill in the blanks using the Active or Passive voice.

f) Communicative Approach:

Harmer (1991) states that communicative approach involves students in activities which give them both the desire to communicate and a purpose which involves them in a varied use of language. It emphasizes both meaning and function. Students learn languages in a way that necessities communication between students. Students' native language is tolerated in certain stages, but it is not used as a teaching tool. Mistakes on form are tolerated to a certain degree.

With an advanced class for a practice purpose, the teacher can ask students to conduct a survey using English only. They need to gather information on demographics such as gender, nationality, age and occupation as well as information on their focused research topic such as reading habits or awareness of environmental issues. After collating the responses they have gathered, they can be asked to write up a report which outlines their main findings. They are asked to use the Passive Voice frequently to give their writing an impersonal feeling.


Aitken, R. (1992). Teaching tenses. Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd.
Azar, B. S. (2003). Fundamentals of English grammar. NY: Longman
Eckersley, C. E. & Eckersley J. M. (1985), A comprehensive English grammar. London: Longman.
Jacobs, R. A. (2007). English syntax. New York: Oxford University Press
Gollin, J. (1998). Keys concepts in ELT, ELT Journal, 52 (1), 88-89.
Griffiths, C. & Parr, J. M. (2001). Language-learning strategies: Theory and perception. ELT J, 55 (3): 247-254.
Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Essex: Longman
Lewis, M. (1986). The English verb: An exploration of structure and meaning. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Nunan. D. (1999). Second language teaching and learning. Boston, Heinle and Heinle.
Swan, M. (2005). Practical English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Thomson, A. J. & Martinet A.V. (2011). Practical English grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Zafar, B. (2008). Language teaching methodologies. In A. Shafai & M. Nejat (Eds.), Global practices of language teaching: Proceedings of the 2008 international online language conference (pp. 159-164), Florida: Universal Publishers.


Tanju Deveci studied Adult Education at Ankara University, Turkey. He did masters in English Language Teaching at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, and received his PhD degree in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning from Ankara University. He taught EAP in Bilkent University, and Sabanci University in Turkey. Currently, he works as an Assistant Professor of Communication at the Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi.
Among his research areas are speech acts, andragogical orientations of language learners, learning styles and lexical competence.
Tanju Deveci can be contacted at: tanjudeveci@yahoo.com

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