What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is a grammatical construction that, broadly speaking, allows you to say what happens to something without saying who or what makes it happen. The passive voice is used a lot in everyday speech.

The basic structure of clauses in English is: subject-verb-object (often abbreviated to SVO). A verb is a ‘doing’ word – like ‘walking’ or ‘reading’ or ‘thinking’ (which in their ‘infinitive’ forms are ‘to walk’, ‘to read’, and ‘to think’). The subject of a clause is that which enacts the verb – so in the sentence ‘The boy walks.’, ‘the boy’ is the subject, because the boy is the one who’s walking. The object of a clause is that which the verb acts on – so in the sentence ‘The girl reads the book.’, ‘the book’ is the object, because that is the thing that’s being read. The table below shows some simple sentences, and what the subject, verb, and object are for each one.

The girl reads the book.the girlreadsthe book
The boy kicks the ball.the boykicksthe ball
The girl opens the door.the girlopensthe door

All of these sentences are in the active voice. In each case, the sentence shows who actually does the action.

All of these sentences can be written in the passive voice, however. Doing this makes the object of the sentence into the subject, and is achieved by changing the verbs from ‘reads’ to ‘is read’, ‘kicks’ to ‘is kicked’, and ‘opens’ to ‘is opened’. The table below shows all of these sentences in the passive voice.

The book is read by the girl.
The ball is kicked by the boy.
The door is opened by the girl.

The important thing about the passive voice is that who does something can be omitted. In each of the sentences in the table above, ‘by the girl’ and ‘by the boy’ could be removed, and the sentences would still be grammatically correct.

The book is read.
The ball is kicked.
The door is opened.

The passive voice is used a lot in everyday speech. (It’s been used a lot of times on this page – including this sentence.) It’s useful for when it doesn’t matter who does something. In fiction, it can also be used to obscure who does something.

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