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Passive Verbs

Summary:

This handout explains and describes the sequence of verb tenses in English.

Contributors:Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Maryam Ghafoor
Last Edited: 2017-10-23 08:16:37

Often, writing teachers encourage the use of action verbs and active voice. However, there are times when it makes more sense to use passive verbs instead.

Use passive verbs when you do not want to specify the actor. If the actor is either unknown or irrelevant, you may not want to specify an actor: “Crimes were committed.” In this case, the actor’s name is purposely avoided.

Additionally, use passive verbs when you wish to foreground a topic that is not the action or actor. “Penicillin was developed in 1928.” In this case, penicillin is foregrounded instead of the developer and instead of the verb, developed.

 

Simple Present
Active: Passive:
  • The company ships the computers to many foreign countries.
  • Computers are shipped to many foreign countries

In the active example of simple present tense, the company ships the computers. Here, the company is doing the action.

In the passive example of simple present tense, computers are foregrounded instead of the company. In this case, it doesn’t matter who sent the computers. 

 

Present Progressive (verbs ending in -ing)
Active: Passive:
  • A combination of wind, pressure, and moisture is forming the thunderstorm.
  • A thunderstorm is being formed.

In the active example of present progressive tense, the factors of the storm are emphasized rather than the storm itself.

In the passive example of present progressive tense, the storm is focused on rather than the factors of the storm.

Use the passive voice if you do not wish to detail the factors of the storm and instead wish to present the storm as the focus of the sentence.

 

Simple Past
Active: Passive:
  • The postal carrier delivered the package yesterday.
  • The package was delivered yesterday.

 

Past Progressive (verbs ending in -ing)
Active: Passive:
  • The producer was making an announcement.
  • An announcement was being made.

 

Future
Active: Passive:
  • Our representative will pick up the computer.
  • The computer will be picked up.

In the active example of the future tense, the representative is specified as the person who will pick up the computer. In this case, the owners of the computer know to look out for a specific person who represents this company.

In the passive example of the future tense, we do not know who will pick up the computer, just that it will be picked up.

Use passive voice if you do not want to specify who will pick up the computer.

 

Present Perfect
Active: Passive:
  • Someone has made the arrangements for us.
  • The arrangements have been made for us.

 

Past Perfect
Active: Passive:
  • They had given us visas for three months.
  • Visas had been given to us for three months.

 

Future Perfect
Active: Passive:
  • By next month we will have finished this job.
  • By next month this job will have been finished.

 

Modals (can, could, be able to, may, might, must, will, would)
Active: Passive:
  • You can use the computer.
  • The computer can be used.

In the active voice example of the modal verb, the second person pronoun, you, is directly addressed as the person who can use the computer.

In the passive voice example of the modal verb, no single person is addressed. Therefore, the computer can be used by anyone.

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