When writing academically or professionally, the passive tense (or passive voice) is often used to place emphasis on the thing rather than the person who did the thing. This allows us to avoid repetition, to express importance, or helps us when the person who did the action is not known.
Why use the passive tense?
The passive tense can be used to show that:
- The object or receiver of the action is more important than the person who does/did the action: The goal was scored by Rooney in the 91st minute.
- The agent or doer of the action is not important: Penicillin was developed in 1928.
- The person or doer of the action is not known: The car was stolen at 4 pm.
- We want to avoid repeating the person or doer of the action: The surgical team operated on the patient. First, the patient was put to sleep. Then, his stomach was opened. Next, the contents of his stomach were drained. Then, …….
How do we use the passive tense?
When we create the passive we take what we call an active sentence (Subject + Verb + Object), and we move the object to the front of the sentence. Then we add ‘be’ (conjugated) + any existing particle (have/has/had) + the verb in its past participle form + (by + the agent/doer). For example:
Rooney scored the goal.
Alexander Fleming developed penicillin in 1928.
Someone stole the car at 4 pm.
The surgical team put the patient to sleep.
Then, the surgical team opened his stomach.
Next, the surgical team drained the contents of his stomach.
→ The goal was scored (by Rooney).
→ Penicillin was developed in 1928.
→ The car was stolen at 4 pm (by someone).
→ The patient was put to sleep.
→ Then, his stomach was opened.
→ Next, the contents of his stomach were drained.
What tenses can we use for the passive?
We can use any tense in the passive form: present (1,2,3), past (4,5,6) and future (7), as well as the simple (1,4), progressive (2,5) and perfective aspects (3,6).
1. I walk the dog in the park every day.
2. Jenson Button is driving the Mercedes.
3. She has fed the cats.
4. Someone won the £4 million lottery jackpot.
5. The decorators were painting the house.
6. The thieves had tied up the security guards.
7. We will finish the project by Saturday.
→ The dog is walked in the park every day.
→ The Mercedes is being driven by Jenson Button.
→ The cats have been fed.
→ The $4 million lottery jackpot was won.
→ The house was being decorated.
→ The security guards had been tied up.
→ The project will be finished by Saturday.
We can see that any active construction can be shifted into the passive tense by moving the object to the front of the sentence, and adding the conjugated verb ‘be’. The passive voice is used often in academic writing such as assignments, dissertations and theses, as well as in journal articles and published literature such as books. We also find the passive tense used professionally in reports, instruction manuals and guidance on procedures. Finally, we often see the passive tense used in news reports, in both their written and spoken forms. So, with such a wide range of uses, and featuring with such frequency in academia, it can be seen that a clear understanding and ability to use the passive tense is an essential skill for any student, researcher, academic author, business person or journalist.