What Are Active And Passive Verbs?

Depending on the way in which you word a sentence, a verb can be either active or passive.


When the verb is active, the subject of the verb is doing the action, as in these examples:

beat Brazil in the final.
[active verb]
More than 300 million people
speak Spanish.
[active verb]
will take the matter forward.
[active verb]


When the verb is passive, the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it:

was beaten in the final.
[passive verb]
is spoken by more than 300 million people worldwide.
[passive verb]
The matter
will be taken forward by Jack.
[passive verb]


Here, the sentences’ points of view have changed: Brazil, Spanish, and the matter have become the subjects of the passive verbs were beaten, is spoken, and will be taken. In the first example, you can see that the subject of the active verb (France) does not appear in the corresponding passive version of the sentence. In the other two passive examples, the former subjects of the active verbs (more than 300 million people; Jack) are now introduced with the word ‘by’.


The person or thing in a passive sentence that does or causes something is called the agent: more than 300 million people and Jack are the agents of the second and third passive examples.


These two different ways of using verbs are known as voices. In everyday writing, the active voice is much more common than the passive. The passive tends to be used in formal documents such as official reports or scientific papers, often where an action or situation is regarded as more significant than who or what did or caused it:

The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A fair grading system was found to be important to all students.


Passive verb forms

The passive is formed with tenses of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ and the past participle of the main verb. Here is a table showing the passive forms for most English verbs:

present simple
am/are/is + past participle
He is taken to school by his mum.
present continuous
am/are/is being + past participle
They are being bullied.
present perfect
have/has been + past participle
Have you been interviewed for many jobs?
past simple
was/were + past participle
We were told not to touch anything.
past continuous
was/were being + past participle
Our computers were being attacked by hackers.
past perfect
had been + past participle
His mother had been brought up in India.
will be + past participle
Arrangements will be made to move them to other locations.
future perfect
will have been + past participle
All the merchandise will have been shipped by tomorrow.


Read more about:

Verb tenses

Phrasal verbs


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