Lesson 18
The Passive Voice

Mastering is all about knowing how to say it and when to say it.


Compare:

  • There is only one thing in the world worse than when they talk about you, and that is when they don’t talk about you.
  • There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

What are the differences?

  1. In the first sentence, the subject is people (“they”). In the second example, the subject is “one thing”.
  2. In the first sentence, the main verb is in the simple past tense: “talked”. In the second sentence the verb is in the passive voice: Being talked (literally “siendo hablado”)

What is the passive voice?

The passive voice is called this way to differentiate it from the “active voice”, which is the way we speak almost all the time.


For example:

  • I talk about many things.  Subject (I)  + verb (talk about) +object (many things).

As you can observe, in the “active voice”, the subject is a person  = I


But if I say:

  • Many things are being talked about.  Se habla de muchas cosas

Then the subject is not a “person” anymore but rather “many things”. Another difference is that the verb tense consists of two verbs:


“Being (-ing form of the verb “to be”) + talked (past participle of the verb “talk”)


So we can conclude that the passive voice is a way of speaking in which the subject is usually an object (thing), or is unknown and the verb is formed by the verb “to be” (conjugated in accordance with the tense in which we are speaking: being, was, were, been, being) + the past participle of the main verb.



Passive voice with “get”


The passive voice can also be made with “get”. Note: It is most commonly used in American English.


Examples:

  • I get paid every month- Me pagan todos los meses.
  • When are they going to get married? ¿Cuándo se casarán?
  • He got picked up at the office. Le recogieron en la oficina.
  • He didn’t get picked up at the office. No le recogieron en la oficina. Note: In the negative form we must add “do/does” for the present tense and “did” for the past tense.

In this case the structure is “get” + “past participle of the main verb” or “get” +“adjective”.


Please, check this list of idiomatic expressions with “get” that are considered passive voice.

    • Get married - Casarse
    • Get divorced - Divorciarse
    • Get engaged – Comprometerse (para casarse)
    • Get dressed - Vestirse
    • Get washed- Lavarse
    • Get started - Empezar
    • Get mixed up- Confundirse
    • Get fired – (Amer) Despedir a alguien
    • Get sacked -(Brit) Despedir a alguien
    • Get drunk – Emborracharse
    • Get caught- Ser pillado
    • Get lost- Perderse

  • Notice that in most cases these verbs are translated into Spanish as a reflexive form ending in –se; casarse, confundirse.


    Sometimes “get + adjective” is not a passive voice.


    Example:

    • Get ready- Prepárate. “ready” is not a past participle. It’s an adjective.

    Sometimes “get + adjective” is not considered a true passive because the subject does the action.


    Examples:

    • She got upset – Se disgustó
    • She got angry – Se enfadó.


    Notice that in these cases, the subject does the action. There is no third person involved.


    What is the difference between the passive voice with “to be” and the passive voice with “get”?


    “To be” indicates “state” (estado) most of the time and “get” indicates “action” (proceso) or a “change of state” (cambio de estado).


    That is why the verb “to be” is used to talk about a state or longer and more planned actions, and “get” is used, for shorter and less planned actions, sometimes accidents or incidents.


    Compare:

      • The glass was broken (state)-  El vaso fue/estaba roto.
      • The glass got broken (action)- Rompieron el vaso-No hay traducción a la forma pasiva.
      • The house was built many years ago (state)- La casa se construyó hace muchos años.
      • The house got built many years ago (not possible)

  • A reflexive pronoun after “get” indicates that the recipient is somehow involved in the result of the action. The reflexive pronouns are: myself, yourself, him/herself, itself, ourselves, and themselves.


    Compare:

    • I got injured while cleaning the machine.  Me hice daño mientras limpiaba la máquina. I wasn’t involved in the result.
    • I got myself injured while cleaning the machine. Me hice daño mientras limpiaba la máquina (y fue por mi culpa). I was involved in the result.


     

    Learning to turn the active voice into a passive voice

    Let’s continue comparing the active and the passive voice so that you get used to the change of tenses.

    • She filled the studio with an intense smell of roses. (active)
    • The studio was filled with the intense smell of roses. (passive) Notice: We don’t know who (meaning “what person”) filled the studio with the intense smell of roses. (Chap. 1)

    • I finished it. (active)
    • It is finished. (passive) (Chap. 2)

    • She prepared everything (active)
    • Everything is prepared (passive) (Chap. 5)

    Notice how in all these examples the object” (in blue) of the active sentence, becomes the subject of the passive sentence.

     

    When and why do we use the passive voice?

    The passive voice is mainly used when we don’t want to mention the subject. We do this either because we don’t know who the subject is or because we’d rather give more relevance to the object or the result of the action than to the subject.


    For example:

    • The house was broken into. Entraron a robar en la casa.  

    I have chosen the passive voice because I don’t know who broke into the house. In other words, I don’t know who the thieves are.

    • The house was built in 1909.  La casa se construyó en 1909.

    I have chosen the passive voice because it’s not important to mention “who” built the house. Instead, it’s more important to mention that the house was built on a specific date.



    What is the structure of the passive voice?

    Study the following table, paying special attention to the transformation of the “active verb” into the “passive verb” in each tense.  You’ll see that to master the passive voice you need a good command of the verb to be.

    Tense

    Subject

    Verb

    Object

    Simple Present Tense

    Active

    Harry

    talks about

    many things

    Passive

    Passive with get

    Many things

    Many things

    are talked about

    get talked about

    by Harry (*)

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    son habladas

    por Harry (**)

    Simple Past

    Active

    Harry

    talked about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    were talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    fueron habladas

    por Harry

    Present Continuous

    Active

    Harry

    is talking about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    are being talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    están siendo habladas

    por Harry

    Past Continuous

    Active

    Harry

    was talking about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    were talked about

    by Harry

    Present Perfect

    Active

    Harry

    has talked about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    have been talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    han sido habladas

    por Harry

    Past Perfect

    Active

    Harry

    had talked about

    many things

    Passive

    many things

    had been talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    habían sido habladas

    por Harry

    Future I

    Active

    Harry

    will talk about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    will be talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    serán habladas

    por Harry

    Future II

    Active

    Harry

    will have talked about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    will have been talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    habrán sido habladas

    por Harry

    Second Conditional

    Active

    Harry

    would talk about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    would be talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    serían habladas

    por Harry

    Third Conditional

    Active

    Harry

    would have talked about

    many things

    Passive

    Many things

    would have been talked about

    by Harry

    Spanish

    Muchas cosas

    habrían sido habladas

    por Harry

    (*) Usually the “by object” is dropped.

    (**) Notice that the translation into Spanish sounds very unnatural as the passive voice is not as common as in English.



    Personal and impersonal passive voice

    So far we have been reviewing “personal passive voice” that is a passive voice in which the subject is the object.


    Example:

    • The glasses (object that acts like a subject) are being made. Los vasos están fabricándose.

    This is the most common kind of passive voice in English.


    However, there is also an “impersonal passive voice”. In this case, the subject is not the object, but rather the subject is “it”.


    Example:

    • It is said that they were drunk. Se dice que ellos estaban borrachos.
    • It has been known for years that rosemary is good for memory. Se sabe desde hace muchos años que el romero es bueno para la memoria.
    • It is done like this. Se hace así.

  • This kind of passive voice is usually formed with verbs of perception such as think, say, and know. But, as you can see, it can also be formed with “do”.


    Notice that the translation into Spanish is in many occasions in the active voice or in structures with “se” + verb.




    Listen and repeat the following sentences.

    Spanish English Phonetics Approximate Pronunciation

    Solo hay una cosa peor a que hablen de uno; que no hablen

    There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about (Chap. 1)

    | ðə z ˈəʊnli wʌn ˈθɪŋ wɜːs ðən ˈbiːɪŋ ˈtɔːkt əˈbaʊt ənd ðət s nɒt ˈbiːɪŋ ˈtɔːkt əˈbaʊt |

    Der iss ónli wuan zing wours dan biing tokt ábaut and dats not biing tokt ábaut

    El estudio estaba lleno de un fuerte olor a rosas

    The studio was filled with the intense smell of roses (Chap. 1)

    ðə ˈstjuːdɪəʊ wəz fɪld wɪð ði ɪnˈtens smel əv ˈrəʊzɪz  |

    De sstúdio wuass fíld wuiz de in’tens smel of róussess

    Está terminado (una cosa)

    It is finished (Chap 2)

    ɪt s ˈfɪnɪʃt |

    Its fínishd

    Ella se llamaba Victoria

    She was called Victoria (Chap. 4)

    ʃi wəz kɔːld vɪkˈtɔːrɪə |

    Shí wuás kold vik’toria

    Anunciaba (la carta) que se iba a casar con Sybil Vane

    It announced that he was going to marry Sybil Vane (Chap. 4)

    ɪt əˈnaʊnst ðət hi wəz ˈɡəʊɪŋ tə ˈmæri sibil veɪn |

    It a’naunsd dat he wuás going to méri síbil véin

    La habían entregado (la carta) en mano esa mañana.

    It had been delivered by hand that morning. (Chap. 8)

    ɪt həd biːn dɪˈlɪvəd baɪ hænd ðət ˈmɔːnɪŋ |

    It had bin de’liverd bái hand dat mórning

    Ellos no creían las cosas malas que se decían sobre él.

    They didn’t believe the bad things that were said about him (chap. 10)

    ˈðeɪ ˈdɪdnt bɪˈliːv ðə bæd ˈθɪŋz ðət wə ˈsed əˈbaʊt ɪm|

    Déi didnt bílivde bad zíngs dát wuér sed ábut him

    La mesa estaba decorada.

    The table was decorated (Chap. 10)

    ðə ˈteɪbl̩ wəz ˈdekəreɪtɪd |

    De téibol wuás dékoreitid

    Lord Henry Wotton había sido invitado también,

    Lord Henry Wotton had also been invited (chap 14)

    lɔːd ˈhenri ˈwɑːtən həd ˈɔːlsəʊ biːn ɪnˈvaɪtɪd |

    Lord hénri wuóton had olso bin in’vaitid

    Él fue bautizado como el Príncipe Encantado.

    He was christened Prince Charming (Chap.16)

    hi wəz ˈkrɪsn̩d prɪns ˈtʃɑːmɪŋ |

    Hi wuas krisnd prins chárming

    Todos los buenos sombreros son hechos de nada.

    All good hats are made of nothing (Chap. 16)

    ɔːl ɡʊd hæts ə ˈmeɪd əv ˈnʌθɪŋ |

    Ol gud hats ar méid of názing





    To sum up:

    The passive voice is a way of speaking in which the subject is usually the object of the verb or the person doing the action is unknown. When we want to include the “agent” (the person doing the action) we use the preposition “by”. The verb is formed by the verb “to be” (conjugated in accordance with the tense in which we are speaking: being, was, were, been, being) + the past participle of the main verb.


    Examples:

    • It is said- Se dice
    • The school was being built. El colegio estaba siendo construido.

    The passive voice can also be made with “get”.


    Examples:

    • The door didn’t get fixed. La puerta no se arregló.
    • The chicken got fed yesterday. Los pollos fueron alimentados ayer.




    Homework:


    1. Look for the passive voice with “get” throughout the audiobook.
    1. Translate the following sentences; the answers are at the end. Once you have corrected them, please put them in www.fromtexttospeech.com or similar free software and repeat them aloud:

    1. La secuestraron la semana pasada.
    2. Se sabe que no son de verdad
    3. La puerta está siendo arreglada
    4. Se prohibe fumar
    5. No se sabe si había sido escrita por ella
    6. Se tratarán muchos temas en la reunión de la semana que viene
    7. Ellas fueron vistas el sábado pasado.
    8. Se decían muchas cosas malas sobre él
    9. Se anunció su (de él) boda ayer
    10. El paquete fue entregado en mano esta mañana
    11. Creo que se habría sido descubierto si hubieran trabajado más a duro.




    Answers:


    1. She was kidnapped last week
    2. It is known that they are not real
    3. The door is being fixed/ The door is getting fixed
    4. Smoking is not allowed/ is forbidden
    5. It is not known if it had been written by her
    6. Many subjects will be dealt with next week
    7. They were seen last Saturday
    8. Many bad things were said about him
    9. His wedding was announced yesterday
    10. The packet (package Amer.) was delivered in hand this morning.
    11. I think it would have been found if they had worked harder.