Read about using passives in the present and past simple. Then, when you are ready, try these passives practice exercises.

Active or Passive?

Many verbs in English can be used in two ways: active or passive.

She wrote the first Harry Potter book in 1997.

Active

The writer J. K. Rowling has had a really interesting life. She wrote the first Harry Potter book in a cafe in Scotland, but ...

We are focusing on J. K Rowling, so we start the sentence with her as the subject. She does the action of writing, so we use an active verb (here, write in the past simple).

The first Harry Potter book was written in 1997.

Passive

Harry Potter books are famous all over the world. The first Harry Potter book was written over 20 years ago ...

We are focusing on the book, so we say the book first. The book doesn't do anything (a book can't write). We are describing the book (e.g. "The book is great"), so the passive uses the verb be (in the correct tense - here, the past simple) with the past participle of the verb (write-wrote-written).

 

How to make passives

We make passives using be + past participle (the third form of the verb, e.g. done, gone, ...). For example, with the verb "to make":

Present Simple
 Positive  It is made
 Negative  It isn't made
 Question  Is it made
Past Simple
 Positive  It was made.
 Negative  It wasn't made.
 Question  Was it made?

 

When to use passives

Use a passive when the object is more important than the person/thing who did it. It's probably the topic of your conversation.

My favourite film is The Ring. It was made in 1998. 

Use a passive when we don't know who did the action.

My bag was stolen last week.

Use a passive when it's not important who did something (or it's obvious).

Three robbers were arrested last night.

(here, it's obvious it was the police - who else can arrest someone?)

Passives are more common in formal (especially academic) English - we don't use them so much in informal English.

Passives with "by"

Most of the time we don't need to say who did something when we use a passive.

The President has been shot by someone.

(by someone gives no extra information, so there's usually no reason to say it)

But, if it's important to add who did the action you can use "by".

Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare.


Now try these passives practice exercises.