Avoiding the Passive Voice

Spanish Uses Active Voice More Than Does English

Aquí se venden las manzanas. (They sell apples here.). Mike Mozart/Creative Commons.

One of the most common mistakes made by beginning (and some intermediate) Spanish students who have English as a first language is to overuse passive verb forms. Sentences with passive verbs are very common in English, but in Spanish they aren't used very much — especially in everyday speech.

The passive voice involves a sentence construction in which the performer of the action isn't stated, and in which the action is indicated by a form of "to be" (ser in Spanish) followed by a past participle, and in which the subject of the sentence is the one acted upon.

If that isn't clear, look at a simple example in English: "Katrina was arrested." In this case, it isn't specified who performed the arrest, and the person arrested is the subject of the sentence.

The same sentence could be expressed in Spanish using the passive voice: Katrina fue arrestado.

But not all English sentences using the passive voice can be translated into Spanish the same way. Take, for example, "Jose was sent a package." Putting that sentence in a passive form in Spanish doesn't work. "José fue enviado un paquete" just doesn't make sense in Spanish; the listener might think at first that Jose was sent somewhere.

Also, Spanish has quite a few verbs that simply aren't used in the passive form. And still others aren't used passively in speech, although you may see them in journalistic writing (or in items translated from English). In other words, if you want to translate an English sentence using a passive verb to Spanish, you're usually best off coming up with a different way.

How, then, should such sentences be expressed in Spanish? There are two common ways:

  • Recasting the sentence in the active voice.
  • Using a reflexive verb.

Recasting in the active voice: Probably the easiest way to translate most passive sentences in Spanish is to change them to the active voice. In other words, make the subject of the passive sentence the object of a verb.

One reason for using a passive voice is to avoid saying who is performing the action. Fortunately, in Spanish, verbs can stand alone without a subject, so you don't necessarily have to figure out who is performing the action to revise the sentence.

Some examples:

  • Passive English: Roberto was arrested.
  • Active Spanish: Arrestaron a Roberto. (They arrested Roberto.)
  • Passive English: The book was bought by Ken.
  • Active Spanish: Ken compró el libro. (Ken bought the book.)
  • Passive English: The box office was closed at 9.
  • Active Spanish: Cerró la taquilla a las nueve. Or, cerraron la taquilla a las nueve. (He/she closed the box office at 9, or they closed the box office at 9.)

Using the "passive se": The second common way in which you can avoid the passive voice in Spanish is to use a reflexive verb. A reflexive verb is one in which the verb acts on the subject. An example in English: "I saw myself in the mirror." (Me vi en el espejo.) In Spanish, where the context doesn't indicate otherwise, such sentences are often understood in the same way as are passive sentences in English. And like passive forms, such sentences don't clearly indicate who is doing the action.

Some examples:

  • Passive English: Apples (are) sold here.
  • Reflexive Spanish: Aquí se venden las manzanas. (Literally, apples sell themselves here.)
  • Passive English: The box office was closed at 9.
  • Reflexive Spanish: Se cerró la taquilla a las nueve. (Literally, the box office closed itself at 9.)
  • Passive English: A cough isn't treated with antibiotics.
  • Reflexive Spanish: La tos no se trata con antibióticos. (Literally, the cough doesn't treat itself with antibiotics.)

Some of the sample sentences in this lesson could be understandably translated to Spanish in the passive form. But Spanish speakers don't normally speak that way, so the translations on this page would usually sound more natural.

Obviously, you wouldn't use the literal translations above in translating such Spanish sentences to English! But such sentence constructions are very common in Spanish, so you shouldn't shy away from using them.