English has active and passive voices. The active voice tells you what the subject of a sentence does. The passive voice tells you what is done to the subject. The active voice is more common than the passive. Using the passive voice changes the focus of your sentence. You can use a passive when the reader does not need to know who did an action, or when you do not want to emphasise who did an action.
Only transitive verbs (verbs which take a direct object) can be made passive. (Examples of transitive verbs are break, buy, make.) Intransitive verbs do not take an object and cannot be made passive. (Examples of intransitive verbs are cough, laugh, go.) Some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive, depending on the context. e.g. I ran the race (transitive); I ran (intransitive).
In active sentences, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action.
In passive sentences, the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
The subject can be a person, an animal or an inanimate object. English therefore uses the passive voice in situations that may not be possible in other languages.
To form the passive, you need a form of the verb to be + a past participle. It is the verb to be that indicates the tense of your sentence.
e.g. Brad broke the window. - Active
Broke is in the past simple, so you need to put the verb to be into that tense (to be → was) and add the past participle of the verb break:
The window was broken by Brad. - Passive
Now look at these sentences:
Sentence 3 uses an ergative verb. An ergative verb can change an object into a subject without needing to use a passive. This is sometimes called the 'middle voice'.
There are several hundred ergative verbs in English. View a list of ergative verbs here.
Ergative verbs are a step further on from the active and the passive.
Using ergative verbs will make you sound more like a native speaker of English. For example, native speakers do not say: The figures were decreased; they say: The figures decreased. Decreased is an ergative verb. To check if a verb can be used in this way, look at the ergative verbs list.
There are two other verbs which are associated with passive-type constructions: get and have. For example, you can get/have something done, which means that someone does something for you, at your request. This introduces a third person or thing to the narrative, even if you do not name them.
e.g. Brad got/had the window mended (by Chad) = Brad caused the window to be mended (by Chad).
In the active it would look like this:
Get and have are called 'causative' verbs. (Other causative verbs, such as help, let and make, do not work in the same way, because they are followed by an infinitive, with or without the word to: Brad helped her to paint the room; She let Brad help her paint the room; She made Brad help her paint the room.)
Just to make things more interesting, there is another use of get which is not causative, because no other person is involved. e.g. The window got broken. This is like an ordinary passive, but a form of get is used instead of a form of the verb be. Get is more informal than be.
|Present simple||Brad breaks the window.||The window is broken (by Brad).|
|Present continuous||Brad is breaking the window.||The window is being broken (by Brad).|
|Present perfect||Brad has broken the window.||The window has been broken (by Brad).|
|Past simple||Brad broke the window.||The window was broken (by Brad).|
|Past continuous||Brad was breaking the window.||The window was being broken (by Brad).|
|Past perfect||Brad had broken the window.||The window had been broken (by Brad).|
|Future simple||Brad will break the window.||The window will be broken (by Brad).|
|Future continuous||Brad will be breaking the window.||The window will be being broken (by Brad).
|Future perfect||Brad will have broken the window.||The window will have been broken (by Brad).|
Look at the song from the video "Stolen on the Ghan". Some verbs are in the active voice, some are in the passive voice and some are ergative verbs:
I used to be so passive
Every door was closed to me. (passive)
I used to be so passive
No door was opened to me. (passive)
Then the door opened (ergative)
It opened ergatively. (ergative)
So I pushed it open (active)
I opened it actively. (active)
Now I'm no longer passive
I open every door that I see (active)
No, I'm no longer passive
The doors open wide for me. (active)
Try the exercise based on the video story.