Resources: Passive Voice

The English inflectional system is weak compared to many other IndoEuropean languages, but we do still inflect our verbs for tense, aspect, voice, mood, and subject verb agreement.  Unfortunately, because American schools don’t teach grammar any more, many people don’t know what this means–including many self-proclaimed grammar gurus.  As Geoff Pullum points out, even the highly acclaimed Strunk and White book doesn’t correctly identify passive voice, confusing the description of passive voice, which refers to something you inflect on the verb with a general lack of assertiveness in word choice.

So, let’s be clear:  in order to label an English verb as passive voice— a grammatical term, you have to have three things.

  1. There must be grammatical inflection on the verb.  This grammatical inflection is going to include the be-verb (as an auxiliary) AND an agreement marker on the end of the verb.  For regular verbs that agreement marker will be “-en,”  but irregular verbs might also use “-ed,” and of course, some verbs may do nothing at all.  (Consider the verb “put.”)
  2. The subject of the sentence must be acted upon by the verb.
  3. There must be a possibility of a by-phrase (e.g. by Alexis, by George, by the bell) which explains who did the verb.  This by-phrase does not have to be present in order for the verb to be passive, but you must be able to insert one.

Here is the inflection (verbal form) to look for:

     to be [VERB]+en

Here are some examples with passive voice but without tense…

…of regular verbs:

     to be taken

     to be given

     to be stolen

…of irregular verbs that use -ed:

     to be announced

     to be helped

     to be soaked

     to be packed

…of other irrular verbs: 

     to be felt

     to be kept

     to be put

However, passive verbs will almost always be inflected for tense, too.  And, contrary to some so-called experts, they are not always inflected for past tense.

Here are some of the same examples with tense:

…of regular verbs:

     to take becomes:        was taken (past tense)

                                           is taken (present tense)

                                           will be taken (future tense)

     to give becomes:        was given (past tense)

                                           is taken (present tense)

                                           will be taken (future tense)

     to steal becomes        was stolen (past tense)

                                           is stolen (present tense)

                                           will be stolen (future tense)

In general, I advise my students to be cautious about looking for grammar information on the web, but I can recommend three pages about passive voice.  These include pages by:


2. Learning English on the Net

3.  Wikipedia’s page on English Passive Voice

At the time of this posting, these three pages look to be both accurate and useful to someone who is trying to learn about passive voice. 

(Please Note:  I cannot make any gaurantees about other content offered at any of these sites, but the fact that they have gotten these right bodes well for them.)


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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One Response to Resources: Passive Voice

  1. Pingback: Resources: Passive Voice a la Geoffrey Pullum | The LingEducator Blog

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