Glossary: passive


'Passive' is a term applied to a special pattern (or voice) used in a sentence or clause, formed with the auxiliary verb be followed by a verb in the -ed participle form, as in The fence was painted by my sister. Compare this with the more usual active pattern, as in My sister painted the fence. In the active example, the agent or 'doer' of the action (my sister) is expressed as the Subject; but in the passive example, the patient of the action (the fence) becomes the Subject.

The sentence It was eaten by our dog is the passive of Our dog ate it. A passive is recognisable from:

  • the past participle form eaten
  • the normal Object (it) turned into the Subject
  • the normal Subject (our dog) turned into an optional preposition phrase with by as its Head
  • the verb be(was), or some other verb such as get.

Contrast active.

A verb is not ‘passive’ just because it has a passive meaning: it must be the passive version of an active verb.

  • A visit was arranged by the school.
  • Our cat got run over by a bus.

Active versions:

  • The school arranged a visit.
  • A bus ran over our cat.

Not passive:

  • He received a warning. [past tense, active received]
  • We had an accident. [past tense, active had]

Passives in use

Investigating the effect of using passives

The slides in the Activity page in the right hand menu contain examples of passives from real writing. Have students do the following:

Passives in use: Activity

Extract A (from a student exam paper on emotion)

Furthermore there is evidence that supports these bodily changes as being essential to an emotional state. This evidence involved testing patients with spine severances. The patients were interviewed and tested in a laboratory and results consistently showed that the higher the spine severance the less patients reported being able to ‘feel’ an emotion.

Changing voice


  • Practise changing voice: from active sentences to passive, and passive sentences to active.

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will practise turning actives into passives, and passives into actives.

Activity 1 in the right hand menu presents students with active sentences. Ask students to work individually, in pairs, or in groups and to write down a passive version of the sentence.

Changing voice: Activity 1

Two guards examined the BMW. → The BMW was examined by two guards.

Renoir painted the same road a few months later. → The same road was painted by Renoir a few months later.

His critics were attacking him on all sides. → He was being attacked by his critics on all sides.

Changing voice: Activity 2

The leader of the party is elected by the political party. → The political party elects the leader of the party.

The full costs of their care are met by the NHS. → The NHS meets the full costs of their care.

Passives with 'get'


  • Identify the difference between a get-passive and a standard passive.
  • Describe some of the differences between get-passives and standard passives in terms of grammar, semantics, and pragmatics.

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will look at passives.

First, let's briefly review our understanding of actives, and of passives and get-passives. 

Passives with 'get': Activity

Uncle Ahmed was bitten by the snake.
Uncle Ahmed got bitten by the snake.

A large house was demolished on Westmoreland Hill.
A large house got demolished on Westmoreland Hill.

These temples were abandoned in medieval times.
These temples got abandoned in medieval times.

Active or passive voice?

Are the following constructions active or passive?

Y6 GPaS Test: Active or passive?

Indicate whether each example is active or passive:

Active and passive

Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?

  1. The council workers cleared the path.
  2. The path was cleared by the council workers.

The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.

In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).

Active and passive: Creating cohesion

When does a writer or speaker choose to use a passive rather than an active? There can be various reasons. We’ll look here at the effects of using passives in different contexts.

Consider sentence (1). Would it be more natural to follow it with (2) or (3)? Why?

Active and passive: Style and use

In some genres of writing – science reports, for example – the passive voice is encouraged. However, many advocates of ‘plain English’ argue that the passive voice can be confusing to readers, and obscures meaning.

The examples below are from articles on the natural sciences, taken from the ICE-GB corpus. They illustrate the use of the passive voice (verb phrases in the passive are highlighted):

Semantic roles

When we talk about grammar, we mostly discuss language from the point of view of its internal characteristics.

We can say that steered in the following example has a grammatical form, namely verb. More specificallty, we say that it is a verb in the past tense.


The Subject of a sentence is often defined as the phrase identifying the agent that carries out the action denoted by the verb. All the examples below involve actions (fleeingsniffingwriting) carried out by the individuals referred to by the highlighted phrases, and for this reason we identify these phrases as Subjects.


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