How to Use the Passive Voice in English Grammar Exercises

What is the passive voice?

In English, sometimes we want to say the same thing in different ways. You may have heard that using the passive voice is not a good idea. However, the passive voice lets us change our meaning in subtle ways. Using it correctly and appropriately can help your English communication.

Usually, the most direct way to communicate is using what we call the “active voice”. This way the focus of the sentence is on the doer of the action.

On the other hand, using “the passive voice” lets us change the focus of the sentence to the receiver of the action.

For example: The neighbors painted the building walls yesterday.

(Active voice)

Also, you can change the focus (or emphasis) of the sentence to the walls themselves, and not the neighbors.

For example: The building walls were painted yesterday.

(Passive voice)

In this case, notice how the neighbors weren’t mentioned in the sentence, but the walls have all the focus. They are more important.

When do we use the passive voice?

The passive voice can be used in many situations, but the most common ones are the following:

– The doer of the action is unknown.

For example: The glass was broken.

– We don’t want to say who did the action.

For example: The decision will be taken tomorrow.

– The receiver of the action is more important.

For example: The pyramids were built a few thousand years ago.

If the doer is known and we want to mention it, we can use the preposition “by”.

For example: The Harry Potter books were written by J. K. Rowling.

How can we transform the sentence into passive voice?

First, we have to identify the three main parts of the sentence in an active voice. Let’s take for example the following sentence:

My mother punished my brother for yelling at me.

“My mother” is the subject, or doer of the action.

“Punished” is the verb, or the action.

“My brother” is the object, or receiver of the action.

Second, we identify the tense of the main verb. In this case, the verb “punished” is the past simple tense of the regular verb “punish”.

Now, we make the changes to the sentence in three simple steps:

  1. Take the object to the beginning of the sentence.
  2. Conjugate the verb “to be” with the tense of the verb in active voice.
  3. Use the past participle form of the main verb.

Our sentence will be like this:

My brother was punished for yelling at me.

As you can see, the focus now is on “my brother” and not on “my mother”. Also, if you have any extra information in the sentence (for yelling at me), you can keep it without changes.

Note: Be aware if the main verb is irregular. The past participle could have a different form.

How can we use the passive voice in different tenses?

We can use the passive voice with different tenses. Each tense is formed differently, but all following the same structure of:

[object] + [to be: conjugated] + [main verb in past participle] + [extra info.]

  Active Passive
Present Simple Someone cleans the office every day. The office is cleaned every day.
Past Simple Someone cleaned the office last week. The office was cleaned last week.
Future Simple Someone will clean the office tonight. The office will be cleaned tonight.

Final Notes on the Passive Voice:

First, to make the negative of the passive voice, simply change the verb “to be” to its respective negative form. 

For example: 

The students painted the walls. (Affirmative active voice)

The walls were painted. (Affirmative passive voice)

The walls weren’t painted. (Negative passive voice)

Second, always respect the subject-verb agreement, even if it’s different from the active voice.

For example:

The doctor receives patients all morning.

Patients are received all morning.

Finally, notice how we used “are” instead of “is”, because the object “patients” is in plural and is now playing the role of the subject in the passive sentence.

If you would like to continue improving your English grammar, check out this lesson on Using Could, Should and Would Have Been – Past Conditional English Grammar Lesson.