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The Passive Voice

By : M. Abdessalami

This is the Passive Voice party!

            It is true that the passive voice is most talked about by our students. I think we can go beyond the formal grammar rules and deal with it in the funniest way. That's -between us- a sort of word games. Let's enjoy talking about the passive voice in the absence of Mr R.G.R (Rigid Grammar Rule). We will be back biters for a while, yet I hope in the benefit of both The Passive Voice and our students.

            Let's make One of the old so missed rules our starting point. The rule says, The object of the active sentence is always the subject of the passive one. But before all let's see what does the active sentence look like before the operation then go to discuss the process the doctor follows during the operation and examine the patient after the operation. It is not an easy work to do, I admit it.

<<The passive voice of any transitive verb is made by combining its past participle with the appropriate tense of the verb "to be" >>, the teacher said. He means that the verb to be is always the doctor who can operate on the sentence successfully in a "passive voice" surgery. Take this so called the patient active sentence, for instance,

Someone plays the piano every night

This sentence is composed of a subject: (someone), a verb: (plays), and an object. And the latter is the organ that gears the whole operation. It is the most important part of the utterance to make the operation feasible.
What we have to do first is to pull the object down to begin our new sentence with.
            The piano............/After that we prepare the verb to be for the operation. The verb is going to be the patient. We make a quick diagnostic to look for two essential things about it; that's to say the verb itself: play and its tense: the simple present. This should not take time; it is a matter of a fraction of a second. What for?! The tense should be taken to the verb plays and given to "to be". Thus the verb "to be " in the simple present is either am, is, or are. It is our new subject which decides on the best choice. In this case, "The piano" must logically choose is because it is the most suitable for it. No doubt our sentence in the passive will progress this way,
            The piano is ..........
Now the verb play goes directly to take the past participle form i.e.: played because it is a regular verb. Thus we reach,
            The piano is played........ Is it necessary to add anything? Yes, it is. We shouldn't forget about the adverb of time "every night" to finally have,
            The piano is played every night. However (by someone) is not correct at all because the agent or (the doer) is not known and is adding no information to the sentence. On the contrary, if the agent is "Bach" for instance we have to mention him. Compare,

Someone plays the piano every night.
The piano is played every night. or
Every night, the piano is played. and

Bachir plays the piano every night.
The piano is played by Bachir every night. or
Every night, the piano is played (by Bachir).

             The agent however is not to be mentioned because its effect on the information that the Passive sentence transmits is almost null.

Here is another example, but this time in a different tense. The present continuous.

* The student is reading the page.
* The page is being read (by the student)

If you have learnt how to transform the sentence from the active to the passive you'll be able to explain the changes that have occurred on this sentence.
The object is The page the verb "read" is sustained by an auxiliary (is) which should not be changed unless the subject is in plural.

            With the present perfect things look quite easier because even you don't learn the irregular verbs this form gives you - freeware - past participles of the verbs you need to transform. Take this sentence for example. What remains to concentrate upon is the insertion of "been" in the right place. Study these examples:

* The dog has broken the window pane.
* The window pane has been broken (by the dog).

* The housewife swept the floor.
* The floor has been swept (by the housewife).

            Besides this, when the active sentence is in the future; or any of the modals is used, the passive sentence seems quite easier to do. The structure is as follows:

[ Subject + modal + be + past participle ]
The following tables illustrate how the transformation is done:

  • will
  • would
  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • shall
  • should
  • ought to
  • must
  • has to
  • etc...
  mail the letter tomorrow.

The letter will be mailed tomorrow. [N.B.:"will" can be replaced by all the other "modals"]

   The letter
  • will
  • would
  • can
  • could
  • may
  • might
  • shall
  • should
  • ought to
  • must
  • has to
  • etc...
  be mailed tomorrow (by Halima).

If we want to analyze the last sentence we can simply say :

  1. The object "the letter" could be "the letters" and nothing changes.
  2. The modal comes down after the new subject: The letter will.......
  3. The verb "mail" tense is "The infinitive" so "to be" is wearing it to eventually become "be": The letter will be......
  4. The verb "mail" now is converted into the past participle i.e.: mailed:
    The letter will be mailed tomorrow.
    The agent Halima -let's repeat it- is not needed.

            Nevertheless there are some cases that have to be dealt with carefully. When the subject of the active sentence is "No one", "nobody" or "none", the sentence in the passive form is negative:

Nobody has watered the garden.

In sentences as such, the subject should be discerned and taken into account for fear we should drop the negative meaning it encloses. If it happens that we take it for a normal subject such as “everybody” or “someone”, we risk missing the inclusion of the negative character of the sentence.

The garden has not been watered.

As you can see, it is the subject "nobody" which brings about the negation represented by the word "not" in the sentence.

            Moreover, when you have a sentence with two objects, we normally choose the personal one or at least the direct object. After it depends on the idea you want to stress. In the following sentence there are two objects. It is the underlined one which is suitable to choose as subject for your passive sentence/

My friend showed her an old manuscript .
She was shown an old manuscript.

You can probably say: An old manuscript was shown to her. But as you see it's quite "heavy" for the ear to bear. The first one then is the most acceptable. Nevertheless, if the speaker wants to highlight the "old manuscript" because it is the most important element in the informative sentence, in this case the sentence, though not really authentic, it can carry the meaning intended.

            I have to draw your attention to "phrasal verbs" as well. These also can be misleading because of their prepositions:

The red car ran over the dog.
The dog was run over (by the red car).

Now, here are some sentences for you in order to practise this "game" of playing on word order and verb tenses ....The objects are CAPITALIZED to make them easily detectible:

  1. People admired YOUR LAST BOOK.
  2. Someone is knocking at THE DOOR.
  3. Someone has stolen MY CAR.
  4. They bought US sandwiches.
  5. The teacher hands out THE EXAM PAPERS.
  6. The neighbours will show YOU my house.
  7. Someone could repair THE LORRY.
  8. Rachid is sweeping THE FLOOR.
  9. People must respect THE LAW.
  10. People all over the world speak ENGLISH.
  11. They have made HIM a headmaster.
  12. The gang broke into THE BANK.
  13. Someone sent ME a beautiful card.
  14. You should do ALL THE EXERCISES.
  15. The old woman is looking after MY CHILDREN.
  16. They were telling YOUR SON never to ride that bike.
  17. He has been typing THE LETTER .

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All in all, I think this list is unlimited. I hope you'll find interesting ideas throughout this quick presentation of the...


I'll be glad to answer your questions about anything connected to the subject up studied that seems blurring or not clearly explained. I'll be glad also to reply to your comments. Thanks for showing interest and I hope you enjoyed your stay. Remember you're at Madrasati @ Abdessalami On_Line : A school for English as a foreign language for free on line.

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