The Passive: When, why, and how to use it


Adam: Hi again. This is Adam. I'm here to you with another lesson from And today's lesson is a little bit complicated, but a little bit

basic at the same time. Today, we're gonna look at the passive form of the

verb. Now, before we get to look at the more complicated thingslike the four

reasons to use the passivelet's have a very quick review of: What is a

passive, and how do we construct it? So, if we look at a basic sentence: "The cat

ate the rat." Okay? Very easy. We have our subject, we have our verb, and we

have our object. Very simple. Everybody knows this; no problem. What we have to

remember is that in this sentence, the subject is doing the action to the

object. Good. In a passive sentence, we are reversing this order. Okay? We are

going, now, this way. What was the object is now the subject. And we have a

verb: "was eaten"; "by the cat" is now less important. If we want to say it, we

say it; if we don't, we take it out. But this is now not an object. We call this,

now, the agentthe person or thing that is doing the action. So, the

difference here is that the subject is now receiving the action. Very easy; no

problem. How do we create the passive? "Be" verb plus the past participle;

"verb three" some of you call it. Okay, no problem.

Now, what we have to concentrate on is the four reasons we use the passive.

Students always ask me: "I know how to use the passive, but why am I using the

passive? I can communicate easily. I can speak easily, I can write easily, and

never use the passive." Of course you can, but there are reasons to use it.

Okay, so the first reason that we would use a passive is because the subject is

unknown, obvious, or not important. If we don't know who or what did the

action, we can use a passive. If we know very clearly, it's very obvious who did

the action, then we can use a passive. If the person or thing that did the

action is just not important to our sentence, we can take it out and use the

passive. I'm gonna give you some examples; don't worry. Another reason

and a very important reason, especially when you're writing, is to shift focus

of subject. If you want the object of your last sentence to now be the subject

of your next sentence, you can use the passive to make that switch. Remember:

"The cat ate the rat" — we switched it: "The rat was eaten by the cat." Great.

Now, again, coming back to that question: "I don't need to use it; I can

communicate easily without it." Yes, of course you can, but you want sentence

variety. If you say: "He did this, he did that, then he did this, then he did

that" — that's very boring. Nobody wants to listen to it. Really, nobody wants to

read it; trust me. And the last reason is for coherenceto make it something

very understandable; and flowto make your... especially writing, flow from

one sentence to the next; one idea to the next. Makes it more enjoyable for

the reader. Now, let's look at some specific examples of each one of these


Okay, so let's look at subject is unknown, obvious, not important first.

"The building was vandalized." Now, first of all, what does "vandalized"

mean? "Vandalized" means that somebody came and did some damage to the

building. Maybe they spray-painted; maybe they broke some windows, etcetera.

So, who did this? We don't know. I could say that: "Vandals did this", but I

don't need to say it; that comes from the wordit's obvious. I could say

that: "Somebody did this", but, why? Better to use the passive and

concentrate on the building, and what happened to it. "The flowers were

delivered on time." Who delivered it? Well, it's obviouseither the flower

company or the delivery company. I don't need to say it; it's very clear that one

of these two delivered the flowers. "The roads were fixed quickly." Who fixed

them? Who cares? They're fixedthat's what's important. I can drive; I'm

happy. Now, we can also use the passive and we commonly use the passive to give

information. "The airplane was invented in the early 20th century." Exactly when

I don't want to say. Who invented it? I don't want to say. Why? Maybe there's

a little controversy, there; maybe not everybody believes the Wright brothers

invented the airplane in 1903. So, what do I want to concentrate on? The

airplane. Right? That's why I'm using the passive. We have to choose what is

more important and what is less important. So, this is the main reason;

this is the most common reason we use the passive. Okay? Let's look at some

other reasons.

Okay, let's look at the third reason. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten number

two; I'm going to do that after. First, I want to look at sentence variety. Now,

why is this important? This is especially important for any of you who

are going to take the IELTS or TOEFL. Why? Because you're going to have to

write an essay. Many, many points come with this little topic, here: Sentence

variety. So, now, you could write all your sentences in a standard subject,

verb, object way. You could say: "He did A, then he did B. After that, he did C."

What is the problem with this? No problem. Grammatically, it's okay. In

terms of English, you can put nice words in here. Okay. What is the problem? The

problem is that it is boring. You don't want a boring essay; you want a fun,

lively, engaging essay. This is what the readers are looking for. Right? "So, how

does the passive come into play here?" you ask yourself. Well, I'll tell you.

The passive allows you to play with sentence structure, so it allows you to

have different varieties of sentences. "He did A." Same start. "C wasn't done

until he had completed B." My mistake, here. Not only do you have a passive,

you have a past perfectbravo. Extra points for you if you can do this. But,

first, you got to have that passive; you got to get to that passive first. Okay?

This gives you sentence variety. Now, when you see the next part, you'll see

reasons number two and four togetheryou'll understand even more how the

passive can create nice sentences, create good flow, make it all easier,

and focus the reader's attention on exactly what you want them to. Okay? The

passive is very powerful. Remember this. Let's look at the next examples.

Okay, so now we come to what is probably the most important reason to use the

passive. And, again, especially for writing, and especially for the IELTS

and TOEFL. We're looking at shifting focus and creating flow in our writing.

So, for example, you are writing an essay about Coca-Cola. What is the most

important thing you're going to talk about? Of course, it's Coca-Cola, right?

So, you want this to be your subject. "John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola." We

don't really care about John Pemberton; we care about what he invented. So, we

switch around the sentence, right? "Coca-Cola was invented by a pharmacist

named John Pemberton." Easy. We put the focus on the Coca-Cola; the other

information comes later. Now, because he is the last idea we have here, we want

to start with him. "His original recipe contained cocaine." Okay. Regular

sentence; active voice. Why? Because we have John Pemberton, we want to continue

with John Pemberton. But, now, we want to introduce another new idea. Okay?

"Which is why the drink was named Coca-Cola." I want to bring the reader

back to my original subject: Coca-Cola. So, the passive is used for placement.

Where do you want to put your topics? Where do you want to put your subject?

Where do you want to put your object? Where do you want to put your agent, for

that matter? So, now, the last idea I'm speaking about is the name, Coca-Cola.

Remember; this is very important. "Today, Coca-Cola" — again, I'm talking

about the name; the product — "is a global brand". What is "a brand"? "A

brand" is basically a name. Right? You see how I connected the ideas? I kept

them close to each other. This is where you get flow. Okay? This is... makes it

easy for the reader to follow your ideas. If you have one idea here; and

then you talk about it again way down there, sometimes the reader can't make

the connection. You want to bring ideas that are similarthat are connected

close together. "So, today, Coca-Cola is a global brand that is consumed by

millions of people." Now, here, I could say: "Coca-Cola is a global brand that

millions of people consume." But the millions of people, they're not

important. What is important is consumption. This is what you want to

focus on. So, what do you do? You put it in a passive; you bring it closer to

your original idea: Brand. This is the subject. This is another... well, this

is an adjective clause, really, but we're putting this closer to what the

brand is. The millions of consumers, the millions of peoplenot really

important. We don't care about them. Okay?

So, I hope you understand what I did here. I placed focus on the subject I

wanted to; I connected ideas together to create flow; and, most of all, I have

sentence variety. I don't say: "John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola

had cocaine. He named the drink Coca-Cola because of the cocaine."

Right? It's very, very boring; very blahif you know what "blah" means. It means

boring. So, what do we do? We have variety, we have flow, we have focus

everybody's happy. And who's the happiest? You, when you get your high

IELTS and TOEFL score. Okay? Great. Thank you very much for joining me

today. Please go to There's a quiz there for you, as usual.

And look at the other teachers' lessons; they're all very nice. Please come back

and visit us again. Thank you very much.