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Grammar II S2 | Professor Bouayad


Grammar II S2 | Professor Bouayad

Grammar II S2                                            Professor Bouayad Group 2

The passive[1]

Compare the active and passive sentences.

Active: The secretary typed the report.

Passive: The report was typed (by the secretary).

When the person doing the action (the secretary) is the subject, we use an active verb. When the subject is what the action is directed at (the report), then we use a passive verb. We can choose to talk about the secretary and what he/she did, or about the report and what happened to it. This choice depends on what is old or new information in the context. Old information usually comes at the beginning of the sentence, and new information at the end.

In a passive sentence the agent can be the new and important information ( the secretary.), or we can leave it out if it does not add any information. We say The report was typed because the fact that the typing is complete is more important than the identity of the typist.

The passive is often used in an official, impersonal style.


A passive verb has a form of be and a passive participle.

Tenses and aspects in the passive • 105

The letter was posted yesterday.

Modal verbs in the passive • 106

All tickets must be shown.

The passive with get •107

Sometimes we use get instead of be.

The letter got lost in the post.

Special patterns

The passive with verbs of giving • 108

The pupils were all given certificates.

104 The use of the passive

The passive with verbs of reporting 109

It is said that the company is bankrupt.

The company is said to be bankrupt.

Passive + to-infinitive or active participle • 110

You were warned to take care.

A lot of time was spent arguing.

Patterns with have and get • 111

We use have/get something done for professional services.

I had/got the photos developed.

The passive to-infinitive and gerund • 112

We don't want to be refused entry.

I hate being photographed.

Active forms with a passive meaning • 113

The sheets need washing.

I've got some shopping to do.

The oven cleans easily.

OVERVIEW: active and passive verb forms • 114

104 The use of the passive

     1.     The topic

Compare these two sentences.

Thomson discovered the electron. The electron was discovered by Thomson.

The sentences have the same meaning, but they have different topics: they are about different things. The topic of the first sentence is Thomson, and the topic of the second is the electron. The topic is the starting-point of the sentence and is usually the subject.

When the subject is the agent (the person or thing doing the action), then the verb is active (discovered). When the subject is not the agent, then the verb is passive (was discovered). The choice between active and passive is really about whether the subject is the agent or not, whether we are talking about someone (Thomson) doing something, or about something (the electron) that the action is directed at.

Note that the electron is object of the active sentence and subject of the passive sentence.


      a.       Usually the agent is a person and the action is directed at a thing. But this is not always so.

Lightning struck a golfer. A golfer was struck by lightning.

Here the agent is lightning and the action is directed at a golfer. The agent can also be an abstract idea.

Ambition drove the athletes to train hard. The athletes were driven by ambition.

      b.       For The victim was struck with a sandbag.

     2.     New information

A sentence contains a topic and also new information about the topic. The new information usually comes at or near the end of the sentence.

Thomson discovered the electron.

The topic is Thomson. The new information is that he discovered the electron. The electron is the important piece of new information, the point of interest.

The new information can be the agent.

The electron was discovered by Thomson.

Here the electron is the topic. The new information is that its discoverer was Thomson. Thomson is the point of interest, and it comes at the end of the sentence in a phrase with by. Here are some more examples of the agent as point of interest.

James Bond was created by Ian Fleming.

The scheme has been put forward by the government.

The first football World Cup was won by Uruguay.

In a passive sentence the point of interest can be other information such as time, place, manner or instrument.

The electron was discovered in 1897.

The electron was discovered at Cambridge.

The gas should be lit carefully.

The gas should be lit with a match.

Here we do not mention the agent at all.

     3.     Passive sentences without an agent

      a.        In a passive sentence we mention the agent only if it is important new information. There is often no need to mention it.


Every day your heart pumps enough blood to fill the fuel tanks of about 400 cars.

The population of the world increases by about 200,000. Nine million cigarettes are smoked. 740,000 people fly off to foreign countries.... In America 10,000 crimes are committed, and in Japan twenty million commuters cram into trains.

In Russia 1.3 million telegrams are sent.... 200,000 tons of fish are caught and 7,000 tons of wool are sheared off sheep. (from J. Reid It Can't Be True!)

There is no need to say that nine million cigarettes are smoked by smokers all over the world, or that in America 10,000 crimes are committed by criminals. This is already clear from the context. Here are some more examples.

A new government has been elected. The man was arrested.

'Hamlet' was written in 1601.

It is well known that 'Hamlet' was written by Shakespeare, so we do not need to mention it. For the same reason, we do not need to say that the man was arrested by police or the government elected by the people.


We use the verb bear (a child) mainly in the passive and without an agent.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsea.

       b.      The agent may not be relevant to the message.

A large number of Sherlock Holmes films have been made.

The atom was regarded as solid until the electron was discovered in 1897.

The makers of the films and the discoverer of the electron are not relevant. The sentences are about the number of films and the time of the discovery.

      c.       Sometimes we do not know the identity of the agent.

My car was stolen.

The phrase by a thief would add no information. But we can use an agent if there is some information.

My car was stolen by two teenagers.

      d.      Sometimes we do not mention the agent because we do not want to.

Mistakes have been made.

This use of the passive without an agent is a way of not saying who is responsible.

Compare the active I/We have made mistakes.

     4.      Empty subjects

Even when the agent is not important or not known, we do not always use the passive. Especially in informal speech, we can use you, one, we, they, people or someone as vague and 'empty' subjects. But a passive sentence is preferred in more formal English.

Active: You/One can't do anything about it.

Passive: Nothing can be done about it.

Active: We/People use electricity for all kinds of purposes.

Passive: Electricity is used for all kinds of purposes.

Active: They're building some new houses.

Passive: Some new houses are being built.

     5.      Typical contexts for the passive

We can use the passive in speech, but it is more common in writing, especially in the impersonal style of textbooks and reports.

      a.       To describe industrial and scientific processes

The ore is usually dug out of the ground.

The paint is then pumped into a large tank, where it is thinned.

If sulphur is heated, a number of changes can be seen.

      b.      To describe historical and social processes

A new political party was formed.

Thousands of new homes have been built.

A lot of money is given to help the hungry.

      c.       Official rules and procedures

The service is provided under a contract.

This book must be returned to the library by the date above.

Application should be made in writing.

The active equivalent We provide the service..., You must return this book... is less formal and less impersonal.

      6.     Verbs which cannot be passive

       a.        An intransitive verb cannot be passive. These sentences have no passive equivalent.

Something happened. He slept soundly. The cat ran away.

But most phrasal and prepositional verbs which have an object can be passive.

We ran over a cat. / The cat was run over.

      b.       Some state verbs cannot be passive, e.g. be, belong, exist, have (= own), lack, resemble, seem, suit. These sentences have no passive equivalent.

Tom has a guitar. The building seemed empty.

Some verbs can be either action verbs or state verbs, e.g. measure, weigh, fit, cost.

They can be passive only when they are action verbs.

Action & active: The decorator measured the wall.

Action & passive: The wall was measured by the decorator.

State: The wall measured three metres. But NOT Three metres was measured by the wall.

But some state verbs can be passive, e.g. believe, intend, know, like, love, mean, need, own, understand, want.

The building is owned by an American company.

Old postcards are wanted by collectors.

105 Tenses and aspects in the passive

The lowest monthly death toll on French roads for 30 years was announced by the Transport Ministry for the month of August. The results were seen as a direct triumph for the new licence laws, which led to a bitter truck drivers strike in July.

Some 789 people died on the roads last month, 217 fewer than in August last year. (from Early Times)

Cocaine worth £290 million has been seized by the FBI in a case which is being called 'the chocolate connection'. The 6,000 lb of drugs were hidden in blocks of chocolate aboard an American ship that docked in Port Newark, New Jersey, from Ecuador. (from The Mail on Sunday)

     1.       A passive verb has a form of be and a passive participle. Be is in the same tense as the equivalent active form. The passive participle has the same form as a past participle: announced, called, seen.

Active: The Ministry announced the figure. (past simple)

Passive: The figure was announced. (past simple of be + passive participle)

      a.        Simple tenses (simple form of be + passive participle)

Large numbers of people are killed on the roads.

The drugs were found by the police.

      b.       The perfect (perfect of be + passive participle)

Cocaine has been seized by the FBI.

The drugs had been loaded onto the ship in Ecuador.

      c.        The continuous (continuous of be + passive participle)

The case is being called 'the chocolate connection'.

Three men were being questioned by detectives last night.

d Will and be going to (future of be + passive participle)

The drugs will be destroyed.

The men are going to be charged with importing cocaine.

      2.      We form negatives and questions in the same way as in active sentences. In the negative not comes after the (first) auxiliary; in questions there is inversion of subject and (first) auxiliary.

Negative: The drugs were not found by customs officers.

The law hasn't been changed.

Question: Where were the drugs found?

Has the law been changed?


We use by in a question about the agent.

Who were the drugs found by?

     3.       When we use a phrasal or prepositional verb in the passive, the adverb or preposition (e.g. down, for) comes after the passive participle.

The tree was cut down last week.

Has the doctor been sent for?

Note also verb + adverb + preposition, and verbal idioms with prepositions.

Such out-of-date practices should be done away with.

The poor child is always being made fun of.

      4.       We can sometimes use a participle as a modifier, like an adjective: a broken vase,

 We can also put the participle after be. The vase was broken can express either a state or an action.

State: The vase was broken. It lay in pieces on the floor,

(be + complement) The drugs were hidden in the ship. They were in blocks of chocolate.

Action: The vase was broken by a guest. He knocked it over. (passive verb) The drugs were hidden (by the gang) and then loaded onto the ship.

NOTE The vase got broken expresses an action.

106 Modal verbs in the passive

      1.       We can use the passive with a modal verb (or an expression like have to). The pattern is modal verb + be + passive participle.

Stamps can be bought at any post office.

Animals should really be seen in their natural habitat.

Meals have to be prepared every day.

Many things that used to be done by hand are now done by machine.


For an adjective ending in able/ible meaning that something 'can be done'.

Stamps are obtainable at any post office.

     2.      A modal verb can also go with the perfect and the passive together. The pattern is modal verb + have been + passive participle.

I can't find that piece of paper. It must have been thrown away.

The plane might have been delayed by the fog.

This bill ought to have been paid weeks ago.

108 The passive with verbs of giving

      1.       In the active, give can have two objects.

The nurse gives the patient a sleeping pill.

Either of these objects can be the subject of a passive sentence.

A sleeping pill is given to the patient.

The patient is given a sleeping pill.

We can use other verbs in these patterns, e.g. send, offer, award. • (3)

      2.       Here are two ways in which a court case about paying damages might be reported.


£1 million pound damages were awarded in the High Court in London yesterday to a cyclist who was left completely paralysed after a road accident. The damages are the highest ever paid to a road accident victim in a British court.


A cyclist who was left completely paralysed after a road accident was awarded £1 million damages at the High Court in London yesterday. The court heard that Mr Graham Marks was hit by a car as he was cycling along the A303 near Sparkford in Somerset.

Compare these two sentences, one from each report.

£ 1 million damages were awarded to a cyclist.

A cyclist was awarded £1 million damages.

Both sentences are passive, but one has £1 million damages as its subject, and the other has a cyclist as its subject. The first report is about the damages, and it tells us who received them. The second is about a cyclist, and it tells us what he received.

      3.       It is quite normal in English for the person receiving something to be the subject.

Here are some more examples.

The chairman was handed a note.                I've been offered a job.

We were told all the details.                         The residents will be found new homes.

109 The passive with verbs of reporting

There are two special patterns with verbs of reporting.

Active: They say that elephants have good memories.

Passive: It is said that elephants have good memories-

Elephants are said to have good memories.

     1.      It + passive verb + finite clause

It is thought that Stonehenge dates from about 1900 BC.

This pattern is often used in news reports where there is no need to mention the source of the information.

It was reported that the army was crossing the frontier.

It has been shown that the theory is correct.

It is proposed that prices should increase next year.

In Pattern 1 we can use these verbs: admit declare hope propose show agree discover intend prove state allege establish know recommend suggest announce estimate mention regret suppose assume expect notice report think believe explain object request understand claim fear observe reveal consider feel presume say decide find promise see

     2.     Subject + passive verb + to-infinitive

Compare these patterns.

Pattern 1: It is thought that Stonehenge dates from about 1900 BC.

Pattern 2: Stonehenge is thought to date from about 1900 BC.

In Pattern 2 we can use these verbs: allege declare find presume see assume discover intend prove show believe estimate know report suppose claim expect mean reveal think consider feel observe say understand

The infinitive can also be perfect or continuous, or it can be passive.

The army was reported to be crossing the frontier.

The prisoner is known to have behaved violently in the past.

Stonehenge is thought to have been built over a period of 500 years.

110 Passive + to-infinitive or active participle


We can use the pattern with the subject there.

There is considered to be little chance of the plan succeeding.

     3.     It + passive verb + to-infinitive

Active: The committee agreed to support the idea.

Passive: It was agreed to support the idea.

We can use this pattern only with the verbs agree, decide and propose.

     4.     The agent with verbs of reporting

We can express the agent in all three patterns.

It was reported by the BBC that the army was crossing the frontier.

The theory has been shown by scientists to be correct.

It was agreed by the committee to support the idea.

110 Passive + to-infinitive or active participle

Some patterns with a verb + object + infinitive/active participle have a passive equivalent.

      1.       Infinitive

      a.        Active: Police advise drivers to use an alternative route.

Passive: Drivers are advised to use an alternative route.

We can also use a finite clause after the passive verb.

Drivers are advised that an alternative route should be used.

      b.       Active: The terrorists made the hostages lie down.

Passive: The hostages were made to lie down.

In the passive pattern we always use a to-infinitive (to lie) even if in the active there is a bare infinitive (lie). This happens after make and after verbs of perception such as see.


We do not often use let in the passive. We use be allowed to instead.

The hostages were allowed to talk to each other.

      2.       Active participle

Active: The detective saw the woman putting the jewellery in her bag.

Passive: The woman was seen putting the jewellery in her bag.

Active: The officials kept us waiting for half an hour.

Passive: We were kept waiting for half an hour.

     3.      Overview

With a participle

With an infinitive


Active Someone saw him running away.

Passive He was seen running away.

Someone saw him run away.

He was seen to run away.


111 Patterns with have and get

      1.       The active: have/get + object + infinitive

This pattern means 'cause someone to do something'. Have takes a bare infinitive and get a to-infinitive.

I had the garage service my car.

I got the garage to service my car.

This active pattern with have is more common in the USA than in Britain, where it is rather formal. Get is informal.

      2.      The passive: have/get + object + passive participle

This pattern means 'cause something to be done'.

I had my car serviced.

I got my car serviced.

This means that I arranged for someone, for example a garage, to service my car; I did not service it myself. We use this pattern mainly to talk about professional services to a customer.

You should have/get the job done professionally.

I had/got the machine repaired only last week.

We're having/getting a new kitchen fitted.

Where did you have/get your hair cut?

Both have and get are ordinary verbs which can be continuous (are having/are getting) and which take the auxiliary do (did... have/get...?) Get is more informal than have.


      a.        Compare these two patterns with had.

had something done: We had a burglar alarm fitted (by a security company) some time ago.

Past perfect: We had fitted a burglar alarm (ourselves) some time before that.

     3.      Have meaning 'experience'

We can use the same pattern with have meaning 'experience something', often something unpleasant. The subject is the person to whom something happens.

We had a window broken in the storm.

My sister has had some money stolen.

112 The passive to-infinitive and gerund


     1.      Forms





to play

to be played

Perfect to-infinitive

to have played

to have been played




being played

Perfect gerund

having played

having been played


The passive forms end with a passive participle (played).


Passive forms can sometimes have get instead of be.

I don't expect to get invited to the wedding. Let's not risk getting caught in a traffic jam.

     2.      Patterns

The passive to-infinitive and gerund can come in the same patterns as the active forms, for example after some verbs or adjectives.

      a.        To-infinitive

I expect to be invited to the wedding. It's awful to be criticized in public.

I'd like this rubbish to be cleared away as soon as possible.


After decide and agree we use a finite clause with should.

We decided that the rubbish should be cleared away.

After arrange we can use a to-infinitive pattern with for.

We arranged for the rubbish to be cleared away.

      b.       Perfect to-infinitive

I'd like this rubbish to have been cleared away when I get back.

      c.        Gerund

Being searched by customs officers is unpleasant.

Let's not risk being caught in a traffic jam. I was afraid of being laughed at.

The government tried to stop the book being published.


After suggest, propose, recommend and advise we use a finite clause with should.

The Minister proposed that the book should be banned.

      d.       Perfect gerund

I'm annoyed at having been made a fool of.

     3.      Use of the passive forms

Compare the subjects in the active and passive clauses.

Active: I'd like someone to clear away this rubbish.

Passive: I'd like this rubbish to be cleared away.

In the active, the subject of the clause is someone, the agent. In the passive it is thisrubbish, the thing the action is directed at.

When the main clause and the infinitive or gerund clause have the same subject, then we do not repeat the subject.

I expect to be invited to the wedding.

(= I expect that I shall be invited to the wedding.)

The understood subject of to be invited is I.

114 Overview: active and passive verb forms

      1.      Tenses and aspects



Present simple

They play the match.


The match is played.

Present continuous

They are playing the match.


The match is being played.

Present perfect

They have played the match.


The match has been played.

Past simple

They played the match.


The match was played.

Past continuous

They were playing the match.


The match was being played.

Past perfect

They had played the match.


The match had been played.


They will play the match.

They are going to play the match.


The match will be played.

The match is going to be played.


      2.       Modal verbs

Modal + infinitive



They should play it.

It should be played.

They ought to play it.

It ought to be played.

Modal + perfect infinitive

They should have played it.

They ought to have played it.



It should have been played.

It ought to have been played


      3.       To-infinitive and gerund


I wanted them to play the match.

I wanted the match to be played.

Perfect to-infinitive

They expect to have played the match by then.


They expect the match to have been played by then.


They left without playing the match.


They left without the match being played.

Perfect gerund

They left without having played the match.



They left without the match having been played.


[1] Oxford Guide to English Grammar

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