Passive Verb Forms

Students at LSE often ask us to help them understand passive verb forms. Many learners get frustrated by passives in English. Some students don't even believe they are used by English people! Of course, they are very common, and very useful. This blog post should help you to understand how and why passive verb forms are used. There is a task at the end of the blog post, which will be answered in my next blog post. If you have questions about passive forms, please leave a comment below!

Why is the passive difficult to understand and use?

In my opinion, there are a few difficult things for students to deal with when studying the passive:

1) The complicated form – it is hard to manipulate sentences using the passive in different tenses and after modal verbs. This is because of all the different auxiliary verbs and past participles used to make passive structures.

2) Understanding how and why the passive is used. Many students say they know how to construct passive sentences, but don’t know when they should use them.

3) The pronunciation of passive forms – it can be difficult to hear all the little words used when native speakers use passive forms. Also, it’s difficult to pronounce them correctly if you’re not a native speaker.

What's the difference between active and passive forms?

To understand passive forms, we need to compare them to active forms.

Active sentences are in this structure:


E.g. Michael Jackson – wrote – this song

The subject is the agent (the thing that ‘does’ the verb)

The agent is included because it is important, or is the topic of the sentence (e.g. if the question is “who wrote this song?” it is important to say “Michael Jackson wrote it”)

But sometimes it is better to order the sentence in a different way. Like thispassive sentence:


E.g. The song – was written – (by Michael Jackson)

What is the form of passive structures?

The basic form is: be + past participle

The auxiliary verb be can come in many forms, eg. being, been, was, were, am, are, is

Past participles are the 3rd form of a verb. E.g. eat - ate - eaten. Past participles are sometimes difficult to remember.

The agent (the one who 'does' the action of the verb) is often not included.

If the agent is included, you have to use a preposition (by).

Why is the passive used?

They are used a lot, and they are useful. But, why? and how?

Here’s a list of reasons why the passive is used:

  • The agent is unknown (The diamond was stolen at midnight last night - at the moment, we don't know who the thief is)
  • The agent is not important (The diamond had been valued at over £1o million it's not important who valued the diamond, we can assume it was an expert)
  • The agent is obvious (“The thief was arrested” -obviously it was the police because they usually do that)
  • The action (the verb) is more important than the agent (the one who did it) “The door had been smashed, the cabinet was broken into and a guard was killed”
  • The diamond is the topic of the sentence or story, so it is put at the beginning of the sentence

Real Examples: BBC News Report

Read the following news story about Michael Jackson’s death (adapted from a BBC News story, linked here)

Find examples of the passive in the text. There should be 10. Think about these things:

1. Which tenses and verb forms are used? (e.g. present simple passive, past simple passive, passive infinitive)

2. Why has the passive been used in each case?

I will give you the answers to this task in my next blog post.

Pop star Michael Jackson has died in Los Angeles, aged 50.

Paramedics were called to the singer’s Beverly Hills home at about midday on Thursday after he stopped breathing.

He was pronounced dead two hours later at the UCLA medical centre.

Jackson, who had a history of health problems, had been due to perform a series of comeback concerts in the UK, beginning on 13 July. He is believed to have suffered a cardiac arrest.

Speaking on behalf of the Jackson family, Michael’s brother Jermaine said doctors had tried to resuscitate the star for more than an hour without success.

Jackson’s body was flown from UCLA to the LA County Coroner’s office, where a post-mortem was carried out. The results have not yet been published.

Concerns over Michael’s health were raised last month when four of Jackson’s planned comeback concerts were postponed, but organisers insisted the dates had been moved due to the difficulty of organising the show.

Some words and expressions in the story are defined below.


Paramedics – Doctors who drive ambulances

Beverly Hills – An area in California where lots of famous people live

Suffer a cardiac arrest – to have a heart attack

To be due to do something – to be arranged to happen. It is going to happen because it is planned

To resuscitate someone – to bring someone to life – using electricity, or breathing or pumping the chest

A post-mortem – a medical examination of a body after it has died

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