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Grammar essentials – the passive voice


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Test Takers

Category

How to study

Date Published

01 February 2023

  • This article was first published on WeLoveIELTS.org (this website is now closed)

Have you heard the words 'active' and 'passive' used to talk about verbs in English? Do you know what they mean? These are not tenses, they are voices. Put simply, the active voice shows what something does while the passive voice shows what happens to something. Today we will look at the structure of the passive, why we use it and when you might need it in IELTS.

Structure of the passive voice

We make the passive with a form of the verb be + past participle and we only use it with transitive verbs (those that take an object). When to change the tense of your sentence you change the be part.

Tense: present simple
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles are left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: present continuous
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles are being left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: past simple
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles were left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: past continuous
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles were being left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: present perfect
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles have been left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: past perfect
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles had been left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: going to
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles are going to be left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: will
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles will be left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: infinitive
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles are (not) to be left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: -ing form
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles being left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: used to
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles used to be left on the beach (by visitors).

Tense: modals
Passive form: be + past participle:
Plastic bottles must (not) be left on the beach (by visitors).

Use of the passive voice

Let’s take a look at some of the more common uses of the passive voice.

  1. Using the passive allows you to make choices about what is important.
    e.g. You will be asked to show your ID at the test centre.

    We use the passive when the object is more important than the subject and the agent (who or what is the action) is either obvious, not important or unknown. We don’t need to say who will ask you, we can guess that it will be a person working there.
  1. We use the passive in formal writing to make it less personal and creates distance from what we are saying.
    e.g. Students are advised to contact their tutor to discuss their workload.

    The impersonal ‘it’ with a reporting verb can be used in this situation too.

    e.g. It is considered impolite to talk with your mouth full in many cultures.

    e.g. It is argued that governments should spend more on public transport.
  1. When we describe a process, we use the passive to show that the process is more important than who did it (this is not the same for natural processes, use active for those).

    This is probably the way that the passive voice is most useful for the IELTS test, especially if you have to describe a process in Academic Writing Part 1.

    e.g. Each child was given a book to read and then asked to write a summary of the story. The summaries were analysed by a group of teachers and the most common phrases were highlighted. The phrases were used in the following lesson to develop writing skills and vocabulary.

Important! The passive voice is used when we want to emphasise the action (the verb) and the object of a sentence rather than the subject. This means that the subject is either less important than the action itself, we don’t know who or what the subject is, or it is obvious from the context.

Using the passive voice in IELTS

Knowing how to use the passive voice is essential for understanding texts in both the Reading and Listening IELTS tests. As the passive is often thought of as a more formal structure that is used in formal writing, you probably won’t need to use it in the IELTS Speaking test. You will definitely find it helpful if you need to describe a process in Academic Writing Task 1 and Task 2.

Best of luck with your studies

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