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Stolen on the Ghan: Passive Voice Video Story Exercises
Stolen on the Ghan

View the above video, then try out the passive voice exercise to test your knowledge!

You can also see the explanation and the exercise as pdf documents if you prefer.

Passive Voice

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.

Active/Passive explanation (as detailed below)

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.

Forming the Passive

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

Ergative verbs/Middle voice

Now look at these sentences:

  1. Brad broke the window.                  - Active
  2. The window was broken by Brad.    - Passive
  3. The window broke.                         - ?

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'.

Active/Ergative explanation (as detailed above)

Why do I need to use ergative verbs?

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.

  1. Brad broke the window.                  - Active
    The emphasis is on Brad. It is his fault. He broke the window.
  2. The window was broken by Brad.    - Passive
    The emphasis is on the window and the action, rather than on Brad. We could even remove his name and say: The window was broken.
    That would emphasise the action and the final result without naming the person whose fault it was.
  3. The window broke.                         - Ergative verb
    The emphasis is entirely on the action. We do not know who is responsible. It is as though the window broke all by itself. In some languages you could indicate this with a reflexive verb. In other languages the sentence would not be possible. In English it is possible because of the ergative verb break.

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.

Get and have

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:

Active/Using get or have explanation (as detailed below)

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.

The passive in different tenses

Tense Active Passive
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.

You can also see the explanation and the exercise as pdf documents if you prefer.

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