Active And Passive Voice | Basic Rules

When we say what people and things do, we use active verb forms. When we say what happens to people and things – what is done to them – we often use passive verb forms.

  • They built this house in 1960. (active)
  • This house was built in 1960. (passive)
  • This book will change your life. (active)
  • Your life will be changed by this book. (passive)

The object of an active verb corresponds to the subject of a passive verb.

  • They built this house (object) in 1960.
  • This house (subject) was built in 1960.

In most cases, the subject of an active verb is not mentioned in the corresponding passive sentence. If it does have to be mentioned, this usually happens in an expression with by.

  • This house was built in 1960 by Sir John Elton.

Passives: Agents

In most cases, the subject of an active verb (the agent) is not mentioned in the corresponding passive sentence. If it does have to be mentioned, we usually use an expression with by.

  • They gave me a warm welcome. (active)
  • I was given a warm welcome by them. (passive)
  • Children love toys. (active)
  • Toys are loved by children. (passive)
  • They built this house. (active)
  • This house was built by them.
  • Her attitude shocked me.
  • I was shocked by her attitude.

It should be noted that by is not the only word with which the agent can be introduced. After the past participles of some ‘stative’ verbs (verbs which refer to states, not actions) other prepositions can be used instead of by.

  • The state of his health worries me. (active)
  • I am worried about the state of his health. (passive)
  • Snakes scare me. (active)
  • I am scared of snakes. (passive)

With is used when we talk about an instrument which is used by an agent to do an action.

  • He killed the snake with a stick. (active)
  • The snake was killed (by him) with a stick. (passive)

Passives: Verbs with two objects

Many verbs can be followed by two objects – an indirect object and a direct object. The indirect object usually refers to a person and the direct object usually refers to a thing. Two structures are possible.

  • She gave me (indirect object) a nice gift (direct object).
  • She gave a nice gift (direct object) to me (indirect object).

Both these structures can be made passive.

  • I was given a nice gift (by her). (Indirect object becomes subject.)
  • A nice gift was given to me (by her). (Direct object becomes subject.)

Another example is given below.

  • They lent me (indirect object) ten thousands pounds (direct object).
  • They lent ten thousand pounds to me.
  • I was lent ten thousand pounds. (passive)
  • Ten thousand pounds were lent to me. (passive)

Common verbs that are followed by two objects include give, send, show, lend, pay, promise, refuse, tell and offer.

Passives: object complements

After some verbs the direct object can be followed by an object complement – a noun or adjective which describes or classifies the object.

  • They elected him their leader.
  • The other children called her stupid.
  • We all regarded her as an expert.
  • Queen Victoria considered him a genius.

When these clauses are made passive, these objects complements become subject complements; they come after the verb.

  • He was elected their leader.
  • She was called stupid by the other children.
  • She was regarded as an expert.
  • He was considered a genius by Queen Victoria.

Passives: Sentences with infinitive and clause objects

Some sentences have infinitives or clauses as their objects. Passive structures are not normally possible with these sentences.

  • He thought that she was the right woman for the job. (BUT NOT That she was the right woman for the job was thought by him.)
  • I hoped to meet him. (BUT NOT To meet him was hoped by me.)
  • People say that their marriage is in trouble. (BUT NOT That their marriage is in trouble is said by people.)

However, most of these structures can be made passive if it is used as a preparatory subject for the clause.

  • It was thought that she was the right woman for the job.
  • It is said that their marriage is in trouble.

Passives: Verbs with object + infinitive

Most verbs can be followed by object + infinitive. Most of these structures can be made passive.

  • I told them to behave. (active)
  • They were told to behave. (passive)
  • I asked him to send me a letter. (active)
  • He was asked to send me a letter. (passive)
  • They thought him to be a traitor. (active)
  • He was thought to be a traitor. (passive)

All active verbs cannot be followed by object + infinitive. The verb say is one of them. With say the infinitive structure is only possible in the passive.

  • Their marriage is said to be in trouble. (BUT NOT People say their marriage to be in trouble.)

Manjusha Nambiar

Hi, I am Manjusha. This is my blog where I give English grammar lessons and worksheets.

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