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How can I reliably and accurately identify the passive voice in writing or speech? I'm not interested in advice about whether or not to use it yet... I just want to know for sure what it is, so that I don't look as stupid as these people.

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You really need to change the chosen answer on this post, because, unfortunately, it contains some completely incorrect information. It says that passives cannot contain a direct object. This is clearly incorrect. In Mary was given a ball, the noun phrase a ball is a direct object. In the corresponding active voice sentence Mary would be the indirect object. The Direct Object remains the same when Mary is made the subject of the sentence. :) – Araucaria Mar 2 at 22:08
Oh, looks like Nohat's done a fix on the answer. Good stuff! :) – Araucaria Mar 2 at 22:15
In some cases, you can't. The window was broken may or may not be a passive construction. In The window was broken by the golf ball it certainly is and in The window was broken, we noticed it certainly isn't. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 3 at 13:53

13 Answers 13

up vote 20 down vote accepted

If a clause has all of the following, then it is in the passive voice:

  • A form of an auxiliary verb (usually be or get)
  • The past participle of a transitive verb
  • No direct object
  • The subject of the verb phrase is the entity undergoing an action or having its state changed

Example: The documents were printed.

Optionally, the agent is expressed in a prepositional phrase with by: The documents were printed by the printer.

There are some exceptions; though, generally speaking, if a given clause meets all the above conditions, then it is certainly passive voice. The Wikipedia article about the English passive voice has a pretty complete coverage, detailing all cases of English passive voice, but the major exceptions are these:

  • A passive clause may have a direct object in the case of ditransitive verbs; when the indirect object is promoted to subject, the direct object remains. (Someone gave Mary the documents becomes Mary was given the documents.)
  • In concealed passives, the verb form is a gerund-participle and has no auxiliary. (Your document needs printing)
  • In bare passives, the auxiliary is missing, but these clauses can only be used as modifiers (With the document printed, Mary could hand in her paper), or in special syntactic constructs like newspaper headlines (Document printed by printer).
  • Some related forms, the passival (The document is printing) and middle voice (These documents print well), may be considered to be kinds of passive voice.
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There is a small class of exceptions to the “no direct object” condition, if I’m not mistaken: ditransitive verbs. For instance, the active sentence Alice gave Bob some books has two passive forms, Some books were given to Bob by Alice and Bob was given some books by Alice. This second form has a direct object. (The two passive forms correspond to the two objects of gave: books, which is certainly direct, and Bob, who is arguably indirect and optionally could be given a pronoun and moved to the end of the sentence.) – PLL Jan 4 '11 at 3:09
(Note that in the original sentence, one can argue that there is an elided proposition and books is the only direct object of gave; but in the sentence Bob was given some books [by Alice], it is unambiguous that Bob is now the subject and books the object, since the verb is was not were.) – PLL Jan 4 '11 at 3:11
In addition, the passive voice can exist apart from clauses, in which case no auxiliary verb is needed. – Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 17:58
Oh man. Nohat, ya gotta fix this post. I know you know better. (Other threads are getting directed here.) – F.E. May 15 '14 at 8:57
@Araucaria It'll make the discussion a lot easier if you could provide an example and your interpretation of what is going on in it and what you're assuming my position would be. Otherwise, I'm just guessing as to what you might be talking about. (And consider that I'm also currently going through SPE and constantly having to decipher what he's trying to say. That is no fun.) – F.E. Jun 5 at 18:17

I think following articles will be helpful to you:

  1. Passive Voice - Wikipedia
  2. English Passive Voice - Wikipedia
  3. Passive Voice Self-Tests
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Please summarise these links - link only answers aren't allowed here. – curiousdannii Mar 3 at 8:24

The simplest rule that I can suggest here is that the subject of the sentence is not 'Actively' doing something. He/She/It is 'Passive' i.e. it is being acted upon. the subject here is the recipient of action, rather than the doer.


"The child was struck by the car." " The fruit was eaten"

Here,The child was acted upon by the car. Likewise for the fruit here.

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Counterexample: the bill became law. The bill isn't actively doing anything, but the grammatical construct is active voice. In contrast to, say, "the bill was signed into law." – moioci Aug 24 '10 at 3:56

In simple terms:

The boy kicked the ball. Active. The ball was kicked by the boy. Passive.

There are lots of related constructions, but you will need to consult a good grammar such as the "Cambridge Grammar of English" if you need a detailed analysis.

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Grammar Girl had a good podcast on this very topic recently: "Active Voice Versus Passive Voice"

She had a really good definition for passive voice:

What is Passive Voice?
In passive voice, the target of the action gets promoted to the subject position. Instead of saying, "Steve loves Amy," I would say, "Amy is loved by Steve." The subject of the sentence becomes Amy, but she isn't doing anything. Rather, she is just the recipient of Steve's love. The focus of the sentence has changed from Steve to Amy.

I really like her debunking the myth that a sentence is automatically in passive voice if the verb is a "to be" verb. For example the following sentence is definitely in active voice despite what Strunk & White think.

I am holding a pen.

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"Am" is clearly a "to be" verb. "Holding" is a gerund. I'm not sure what you are suggesting with that comment. – JohnFx Aug 24 '10 at 15:18
holding is a participle here – nohat Sep 6 '10 at 19:09
When you passivise a sentence the focus of the sentence changes so that it is NOT on the new subject. That's the whole point of a passive. – Araucaria Mar 2 at 11:12
@curiousdannii No, we usually passivise a sentence to make the subject link back to old information in the previous sentence. The new info, which is the focus of the sentence then comes at the end of the current sentence. We don't like to put new interesting info at the beginning it goes at the end. So we often passivise to put the emphasis on the action in the verb phrase, or on the agent, the person doing the action - who will appear at the END of the sentence, it they're mentioned at all. – Araucaria Mar 3 at 12:42
@curiousdannii Compare "I've been studying the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci" and "I've been studying the Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa". The first is better because the new info is at the end and the focus goes on this new info! :) – Araucaria Mar 3 at 12:57

When I'm teaching passive vs. active voice, I use this rule of thumb:

Look at the sentence. Can you find the person or thing doing the action? If you can't find it in the sentence, that's usually the first tip that the sentence is passive. And if you can find it - is the thing doing the action coming before or after the verb? If it's before the verb - active. If it's after the verb - passive.

The popcorn was made. (passive - the person making popcorn isn't in the sentence)

The popcorn was made by me. (passive - "me" comes after the verb, "was made")

I made the popcorn. (active - "I" comes before "made")

There are of course exceptions, but this sends to be simple and easy.

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So "That's correct," said I is passive because "I" comes after "said"? Nonsense. – Daniel Roseman Aug 13 '10 at 8:59
"There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong." H.L.Mencken – Mei May 27 '11 at 4:21
And yet, for students studying passive voice (at lower levels of fluency), this piece of advice will help them enormously, since subject inversions (outside question structures and 'so/neither do I') are only studied at higher levels. – Sara Costa May 29 '13 at 13:26

Meaning is not always a clear indicator; but grammatically it should be easy to spot: look out for a form of 'to be' followed by a past tense form, such as

The ball WAS KICKED.

The questions IS ANSWERED in the next section.

The film HAS BEEN SHOWN before.

And if there is an actor present, it would be in a BY-phrase, but that can be omitted (as in the examples here).

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Passive voice is a construction where the object of a transitive verb is moved into the subject position, and the subject is optionally moved into a prepositional phrase. In English, the passive can always be identified by to be + past participle. Some examples:

Active: Kim hits the ball.
Passive: The ball is hit by Kim.

Active: Grandma baked a cake.
Passive: The cake was baked by Grandma.

Active: Mr. Henry bought the painting for six million dollars.
Passive: The painting was bought for six million dollars.

Note the following:

  • All of these sentences contain a form of the verb to be followed immediately by a past participle. Without that telltale, it's not a passive sentence.
  • The prepositional phrase with by is optional, as in the last sentence. However, a sentence that identifies the actor with a phrase beginning with by is usually passive.

Now, to clear up some common misconceptions.

Intransitive verbs are never passive, even if the subject of the verb isn't doing anything. For example, none of the following are passive:

The boy fell down.

Six buildings burned to the ground.

The cake is baking.

All of these sentences have intransitive verbs, which are verbs that do not take an object. The fact that the subject of the verb isn't really "active" in any of these cases does not make these examples of "passive voice". All of the previous are in fact active voice.

Second, passive voice has hardly anything to do with the "focus" of the sentence. For example, the following is not passive:

We all watched John make a brilliant save.

The "focus" of the action here is John, but that's irrelevant to the question of active voice and passive voice. The main verb watched is in the active voice, and John is the object of watched. The passive version of this sentence would be:

John was watched making a brilliant save by all of us.

(Which is an extremely awkward sentence.)

Finally, there are two other constructions sometimes misidentified as passive because they share some syntactic features with the passive voice, but which emphatically are not passive.

The first is the progressive, which consists of to be + present participle. (The present participle always ends in -ing.) For example, none of the following are passive:

Kim is hitting the ball.

Grandma was baking a cake.

Although these contain a form of to be, they aren't passive since they don't contain the past participle.

The second is the perfect, which consists of to have + past participle. For example, none of the following are passive:

Kim has hit the ball.

Grandma had baked a cake.

Although these contain the past participle, they aren't passive since the participle doesn't follow a form of to be.

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In let's eat the cake made by auntie Val, "baked" is passive. No form of to be is necessary. – Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 18:02
@Cerberus, you're right. The word made (or baked) is a passive participle, but the clause that it's in is in the active voice. – JSBձոգչ Jan 24 '11 at 18:06
True. Different voices can be embedded in one another. Be glad that we are no Ancient Greeks, who had three voices: active, medium, and passive... – Cerberus Jan 24 '11 at 18:12
Passive or no: A: I am surprised that Mary has not done the dishes. B: I am surprised by Mary's not having done the dishes. C: I am surprised with you, Mary, because you've not done the dishes. D: I am surprised with you, Mary. – pazzo Jun 2 at 18:01

A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.

credit UNC

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The English passive structure to be + past participle is theoretically ambiguous. It can describe a passive action (1 The bridge was destroyed) or it can describe a state/condition (2 The bridge was destroyed).

You decide which of the two possibilities is meant either by context or logical judgement.

English can avoid this ambiguity by adding a passive agent (3 The bridge was destroyed by soldiers) or by using the continuous form (4 The bridge was being destroyed when we arrived) or the get-passive (5 The bridge got destroyed).

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Passive or no: A: I am surprised that Mary has not done the dishes. B: I am surprised by Mary's not having done the dishes. C: I am surprised with you, Mary, because you've not done the dishes. D: I am surprised with you, Mary. – pazzo Jun 2 at 18:02
No sentence contains a passive. – rogermue Jun 3 at 15:03
What if D said I am surprised by you, Mary? – pazzo Jun 4 at 20:12
Does a passive make sense? – rogermue Jun 4 at 20:31

Look for a form of the verb "to be" followed by the past participle of an active, transitive verb. Next, determine if the participle is describing the action or the subject. Many adjectives use the same form as the past participle when they are describing a state of being. In the passive voice, the verb "to be" must be acting as an auxiliary (helper) verb and not as a copula (linking verb). Using the cake example, the word "baked" can be either an adjective, where "the cake was baked" describes the state of the cake, or as a passive verb, where "was baked" describes the action that was done to the cake by an unidentified agent. You have to look at the context of the sentence. Most of the time, if you can add the phrase "by someone or something" to the main clause without changing the meaning of the sentence, you are using the passive voice. (Note that in the sentence "We ate the cake baked by Grandma," the main clause is "we ate the cake" and "baked by Grandma" is a defining relative clause describing the cake. See for more information on defining relative clauses.)

There are several instances where a writer might choose to use the passive voice. Some examples are: The actor(s) is unknown, but implied. The actor(s) is irrelevant. You want to be vague about who is responsible, often to avoid placing blame (or giving credit). You want to emphasize the recipient of the action by making it the subject of your sentence. You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice (less common). (

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Passive or no: A: I am surprised that Mary has not done the dishes. B: I am surprised by Mary's not having done the dishes. C: I am surprised with you, Mary, because you've not done the dishes. D: I am surprised with you, Mary. – pazzo Jun 2 at 17:57
"Surprised" in each of these examples appears to be an adjective, describing the emotional state of the subject, except in sentence B. B appears to be passive, but I would reword it to say "I am surprised by Mary's failure to do the dishes" for clarity. – user70809 Jun 3 at 14:54
What if D said I am surprised by you, Mary? – pazzo Jun 4 at 20:12
If there is a clear-cut difference in grammaticality between the following, it suggests that "surprised with" (or "surprised at") is adjectival, but "surprised by" is a passive. "I am very surprised at you." / *"I am very surprised by you." This is because "very" cannot modify verbs, and the passive participle is a verb. (Unfortunately, I find the facts here unclear.) – Greg Lee Jun 7 at 15:47

If you can add "by zombies" to the end of the phrase, and it makes sense, the phrase is passive.


John was eaten (by zombies). Thus, this is the passive tense.

Zombies ate John (by zombies). That doesn't seem to make sense, so this is in the active tense.

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Mass insanity over passive UFOs continues, the Language Log article linked to in the OP, is one of a series by Professor Pullum, co-author of the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, in which Pullum derides comments in the "news media and political blogosphere" that misattribute the term passive to any construction in which the speaker or writer appears to be attempting to conceal the agent.

Thus, for example, the grammatically-clueless political commentator detects the attempt to avoid agency in both There were mistakes in the planning of the operation and Mistakes were made in the planning of the operation, and assumes that the term passive can be applied to the former because it is correctly applied to the latter.

Of course, there is no reason why the term passive should not evolve to denote any utterance that obfuscates the agent, but for the purpose of this answer I shall stick to a discussion of what grammarians understand by the term.

Before we can identify something, we have to define it. Since dictionaries are the usual place to look for definitions, it is helpful to cite from the entry for passive in the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (ODEG), p294-296:

A construction (verb phrase, clause, or sentence) in which the referent of the grammatical subject typically 'undergoes','experiences' or 'receives' the action of the verb (i.e. is its patient).


In formal terms, a passive construction contains a form of the passive auxiliary be (or get) combined with a past participle.

So to test whether any given construction is a canonical passive construction, we need to ask:

  • Does it contain a form of the be or get auxiliary together with a past participle?

  • Does the grammatical subject undergo, experience or receive the action of the verb?

In most cases these tests will be sufficient to determine whether a construction is passive or not. For example, the first test will immediately rule out the There were mistakes construction since it does not contain a past participle. Conversely, Mistakes were made contains a form of the be auxiliary together with the past participle, and the grammatical subject, mistakes, can be said to undergo the action of the verb, to make, so it is passive.

Of course, it is the nature of language that there will be edge or non-canonical cases. @Nohat's answer includes some examples such as bare passives, and links to Wikipedia's article on the passive, which in my opinion is a good overview of the topic.

The Wikipedia article also deals with the issue that appears to be most exercising the setter of the bounty for this question - namely, how to classify constructions such as I am surprised by you, Mary.

For a discussion of this point, it is useful to cite the ODEG once more:

Some passive sentences are ambiguous. Thus The opera house was finished in 1980, out of context, is most likely to have an actional meaning referring to the building activity, namely 'the building work was completed in 1980'. This is called an actional passive. But it could also have a statal meaning, i.e. 'the building was in a finished state in 1980'. This is called a statal passive. In an actional passive the string be + past participal clearly forms a passive construction, whereas in a statal passive be is a copular verb and the -ed/en form is an adjective. The statal passive is sometimes called pseudo-passive or adjectival passive.

So, finally, how do we determine whether constructions such as I am surprised by you are actional passives or statal passives? Well, a reliable classification of decontextualised constructions is not possible since we don't have access to the speaker's communicative intention. But we can speculate, in which case it is useful to return to the second test:

Does the grammatical subject undergo, experience or receive the action of the verb?

If the speaker means something like Everyday I am surprised by you creeping up behind me while doing the dishes, then we have an actional passive because the I is receiving the action of the verb to surprise.

If, conversely, the speaker is making a general statement that he is in a constant state of surprise caused by Mary and the various things she does and says, then we have a statal passive.

Since writing the Mass insanity over passive UFOs on Language Log, Pullum has added another article, whose explicit intention is to teach the grammatically clueless what constitutes a passive construction, and what doesn't: The passive in English.

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Passive or no: A: I was surprised when I got home last night. B: The window was broken at the exact moment that Guy broke it. – pazzo Jun 5 at 13:43
@pazzo. Based on the ODEG definitions "I was surprised when I got home last night" could be the statal (adjectival, pseudo) passive (I was already in a state of surprise when I got home last night) or the actional passive (I was surprised by a bird landing on my car when I got home last night). I don't understand your second example: Is "at the exact moment that Guy broke it" part of your example sentence or an explanation of the circumstances? – Shoe Jun 5 at 14:09
It's part of the sentence. C: I was happy. – pazzo Jun 5 at 14:15
There's a long discussion of adjectival passives and how to test for them in the CGEL on p1436-1440. You might want to ask a separate question about them. – Shoe Jun 5 at 14:16
In many instances you can distinguish a passive with an action or process sense from an adjectival construction with a stative sense. However, it doesn't follow from this that a construction with a stative sense must be adjectival and not a passive. Not only does it not follow, it isn't even true. Consider the passive "Ohio is bordered on the north by Lake Erie." It's stative -- there is no agent and progressive aspect is not allowed. It's not adjectival, since the adverb modifier "very" is not permitted: *"Ohio is very bordered ...". – Greg Lee Jun 7 at 15:30

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