Passive Voice in English for ESL

Bring the Bucket
The water was brought up the hill. MamiGibbs / Getty Images

The passive voice in English is used to express what is done to someone or something. Here are a few examples:

The company was sold for $5 million.
That novel was written by Jack Smith in 1912.
My house was built in 1988.

In each of these sentences the subject of the sentences does nothing. Rather something is done to the subject of the sentence. In each case, the focus is on the object of an action. These sentences could also be written in the active voice.

The owners sold the company for $5 million.
Jack Smith wrote the novel in 1912.
A construction company built my house in 1988.

Choosing Passive Voice

The passive voice is used to place focus on the object rather than the subject. In other words, who does something is less important than what was done to something. Therefore, the passive voice is often used in business settings when the focus is placed on a product. By using the passive, the product becomes the focus of the sentence. As you can see from these examples, this makes a stronger statement than using the active voice.

Computer chips are manufactured in our plant in Hillsboro. 
Your car will be polished with the finest wax.
Our pasta is made using only the finest ingredients. 

Teachers can use this lesson plan to help students integrate the passive voice.

The Agent With "By"

When it's clear from the context who or what does something to an object, the agent (the person or object that does the action) can be dropped.

The dogs have already been fed. (It's not important who fed the dogs)
The children will be taught basic math. (It's clear that a teacher will teach the children)
The report will have been finished by the end of next week. (It's not important WHO completes the report)

In some cases, it's important to know the agent. In this case, use the preposition "by" to express the agent following the passive structure. This structure is especially common when speaking about artistic works such as paintings, books, or music.

The song was written by Peter Hans.
Our house was constructed by the Thompson Brothers Builders. 
The symphony was written by Beethoven. 

Passive Voice Structure

The passive voice follows the same usage rules as all the tenses in English. However, some tenses tend not to be used in the passive voice. Generally speaking, perfect continuous tenses are not used in the passive voice. Remember that the verb "be" is conjugated followed by the past participle form of the verb. 

That bread was baked early this morning. (simple past of "be" = was / past participle of "bake" = baked)
Sheila has been helped by the teller. (present perfect of "be" = has been / past participle of "help" = helped)

Passive Object + Be (Conjugated) + Main Verb Past Participle

Present Simple

am / is / are + past participle

Our chips are manufactured in China.
The boys are looked after by our babysitter in the afternoon.

Present Continuous

am being / is being / are being + past participle

Our house is being painted this week.
The report is being written by Kevin.

Past Simple

was / were + past participle

My car was built in Germany.
The story was written by Hans Christen Anderson.

Past Continuous

was / were being + past participle

The dinner was being prepared while I finished the report.
The people were being entertained when the robber appeared.

Present Perfect

has / have been + past participle

The software has been developed by specialists.
Our children have been educated abroad.

Past Perfect

had been + past participle

Dinner had been prepared before the guests arrived.
The report had been presented by Peter by the time the board met to make a decision. 

Future With "Will"

will be + past participle 

Her mother will be accompanied to the airport.
The book will be published by TSY in November. 

Future with "Going to"

am / is / are going to be + past participle

Lunch is going to be prepared for everybody.
Jennifer and Alice are going to be honored at the ceremony.

Future Perfect

will have been + past participle 

She will have been instructed on the situation by the time she arrives.
The report will have been written by the end of next week by John.