Passive Voice in English Grammar

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice in English grammar allows us to make the recipient of the action the focus of the sentence; the person or thing performing the action is unknown, unimportant or obvious. The passive is formed as follows: form of be + past participle.

Learn the difference between the active and passive voice with Lingolia, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

My bike was stolen last night.

The cellar in our building was broken into and several bikes were taken.

I called the police earlier, but they had already been informed by my neighbour.

An investigation is being conducted, but the thief has not been arrested yet.

Any information should be reported to the police.

When to use the passive in English grammar

Active sentences usually follow the subject-verb-object word order and focus on the person or thing performing the action.

Example:
A criminal stole my bike.

In contrast, the passive voice focuses on the action itself. Passive sentences tell us what happens to the recipient of the action.

Example:
My bike was stolen.

We use the passive when the person or thing performing the action (known as the agent) is unknown, unimportant or obvious.

Examples:
My bike was stolen. → unknown agent
An investigation is being conducted. → obvious agent (the police)
A mistake has been made. → avoids naming the agent
Any information should be reported to the police. → people in general

If we want to include the agent of a passive sentence, we use the preposition by.

Example:
My bike was stolen by a criminal.
They had already been informed by my neighbour.

How to form the passive in English grammar

Passive sentences are formed as follows: form of be + past participle of the main verb.

Only the form of the verb be changes depending on the tense that we are using; the past participle remains the same in every tense.

The table below provides an overview of the passive voice in all of the English tenses.

Tense Example
Simple Present The thief is arrested.
Present Progressive The thief is being arrested.
Present Perfect The thief has been arrested.
Simple Past The thief was arrested.
Past Progressive The thief was being arrested.
Past Perfect The thief had been arrested.
Will Future The thief will be arrested.
Future with going to The thief is going to be arrested.
Future Perfect The thief will have been arrested.
Infinitive The thief should be arrested.
The thief would be arrested.
Perfect Infinitive The thief should have been arrested.
The thief would have been arrested.

Info

The present perfect progressive and the past perfect progressive do not exist in the passive. Instead, we use the simple forms (present perfect simple and past perfect simple).

How to change a sentence from active to passive

When transforming a sentence from active to passive, we can take a step-by-step approach.

  • Step 1: identify the object of the sentence and bring it to the front
active:
Someone stole my bike.
passive:
My bike …
  • Step 2: identify the tense and conjugate the verb be accordingly
active:
Someone stole my bike. = simple past
passive:
My bike was …
active:
Someone stole my bike. → steal – stole – stolen
passive:
My bike was stolen.
  • Step 4: decide if you need to include the agent
active:
Someone stole my bike. → Who stole the bike? We don’t know.
The agent is unknown and therefore unnecessary in this case.
  • Step 5: if the agent is important, we introduce it using the preposition by.
active:
A cyclist caused the crash.
passive:
The crash was caused by a cyclist.
This sentence does not make sense without the agent.

Note

Because the direct object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence, we can only use transitive verbs in the passive voice (e.g., steal a car, write a book, make a mistake …). Intransitive verbs do not take a direct object (e.g., arrive, die, go …) so cannot be used in the passive.

Learn more about the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.

Table of English Tenses in Active and Passive

Check out the table below to learn how to change active sentences into the passive voice in every tense.

Tense Active Passive
Simple Present Someone steals my bike. My bike is stolen.
Present Progressive Someone is stealing my bike. My bike is being stolen.
Present Perfect Someone has stolen my bike. My bike has been stolen.
Simple Past Someone stole my bike. My bike was stolen.
Past Progressive Someone was stealing my bike. My bike was being stolen.
Past Perfect Someone had stolen my bike. My bike had been stolen.
Will Future Someone will steal my bike. My bike will be stolen.
Future with going to Someone is going to steal my bike. My bike is going to be stolen.
Future Perfect Someone will have stolen my bike. My bike will have been stolen.
Infinitive Someone would steal my bike.
Someone can steal my bike.
My bike would be stolen.
My bike can be stolen.
Perfect infinitive Someone would have stolen my bike.
Someone might have stolen my bike.
My bike would have been stolen.
My bike might have been stolen.

The passive in sentences with two objects

Certain verbs like ask, give, offer, pay, send, show etc. are used with two objects. Usually, one is a person (indirect object) and the other is a thing (direct object).

In the active voice, these sentences can be expressed in two different ways:

Example:
Someone gave me this calendar.
Someone gave this calendar to me.
indirect object (IO): me; direct object (DO): this calendar

This is the same in the passive voice; either object can become the subject of the passive sentence.

Example:
I was given this calendar.
indirect object (me) → subject (I)
This calendar was given me to me.
direct object (this calendar) → subject (this calendar)

Changing object pronouns to subject pronouns

When the indirect object of an active sentence is an object pronoun (me, you, him, her …), we must change it to a subject pronoun in the passive voice.

Active Voice Object Pronoun Subject Pronoun Passive Voice
They told me about the crime. me I I was told about the crime.
They told you about the crime. you you You were told about the crime.
They told her about the crime. her she She was told about the crime.
They told him about the crime. him he He was told about the crime.
They reported it to the police. it it It was reported to the police.
They told us about the crime. us we We were told about the crime.
They told them about the crime. them they They were told about the crime.

Personal & Impersonal Passive

In formal situations such as news reports or academic articles, we use reporting verbs and verbs of speech and thought in the passive voice to express information in a neutral, unbiased way.

Common verbs: agree, announce, assume, believe, claim, consider, declare, expect, feel, find, know, mention, say, suppose, think, and understand.

Such sentences can start with it (impersonal passive) or with the subject (personal passive).

Example:
It is said that this area has a high crime rate. (impersonal passive)
This area is said to have a high crime rate. (personal passive)
= They say that this area has a high crime rate.

Impersonal Passive

Sentences in the impersonal passive begin with it: it is said/believed/agreed etc. + that + clause.

Examples:
It is believed that the suspect has blonde hair.
It is said that the neighbourhood is a hotspot for crime.
It is assumed that the thief is local to the area.

Note: in the impersonal form, only the reporting verb is formed in the passive voice; the rest of the sentence stays the same.

Personal Passive

Sentences in the personal passive begin with the subject and contain an infinitive clause: subject + is said/believed/thought etc. + to + infinitive.

Examples:
The suspect is believed to have blonde hair.
The neighbourhood is said to be a hotspot for crime.
The thief is assumed to be local to the area.

We use the perfect infinitive (have + past participle) after the reporting verb to refer to the past.

Example:
The theft is believed to have occurred at midnight last night.
The thief is said to have acted alone.