Grammar for IELTS: A Look at the Passive Voice

May 22, 2019 by Andrea Castro Andrea Castro

Welcome back to our series of posts on improving your grammar for IELTS! 

The post provides you with an opportunity to explore relative clauses, and it includes tips for improving your own use of this more complex grammatical structure. In this post, we’ll be focusing on another structure that you may find useful on your IELTS, the passive voice.

What is voice?

In grammar, voice is the form the verb takes to show the relationship between the action (or state, in some cases) and the participants (subject, object) in an event. The voice can be active or passive. In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action (e.g. She wrote the letter.) On the other hand, in a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject receives the action (e.g. The letter was written.)

When do we use the passive voice and how do we form it?

Now that you know what we mean by ‘passive voice’, let’s look at when and how to use it. In a nutshell, we use the passive voice when we want to focus the reader’s attention on the person or thing affected by the action. In the above example “The letter was written.”, our attention goes to the letter. As you may have already noticed, we form the passive using be (in a suitable tense) and the past participle (written, invited, stolen, etc.) In what situations, then, should we use the passive voice instead of the active voice? The passive voice is commonly used in the following cases:

  1. when we do NOT know who the agent (or doer) is
  • For much of human history, animals have been captured and put in zoos for our entertainment.

2. when it is obvious to the listener or reader who the agent is

  • I recently quit my job because I was being paid less than my less experienced, male colleagues.

3. when it is not important to know who the agent is

  • What a lot of people in western countries don’t realize is that most of their fancy clothes are made overseas in rural and poor areas.

4. when people in general are the agents

  • Nowadays, most movies and TV shows can be streamed online.

Note that when using the passive voice, we can leave out the agent or doer, just like we did in all of the examples above, or we can place the agent in a prepositional phrase (by + agent) when the agent is important:

  • One of the best gifts that I’ve ever received was a necklace that was given to me by my grandmother.

What tenses can be used in the passive voice?

The passive can be used with all tenses. The table below gives examples of the most common forms in the passive:

tense verb form  example
present simple

am

are

is
+ past participle Finally, the product is delivered to local supermarkets
present continuous

am

are

is
+ being + past participle That cathedral is being repaired as we speak. 
past simple

was

were
+ past participle A significant increase in sales was witnessed between the years 2000 and 2010.
past continuous

was

were
+ being + past participle We didn’t know, but we were being monitored that day.
present perfect simple

have

has
+ been + past participle I haven’t been asked to participate in the project.
past perfect simple had + been + past participle An important lesson had been taught
modal simple

can

will

might

could

may

must
+ be + past participle Trophy hunting may be allowed in some countries, but that doesn’t mean that it’s OK.
modal perfect simple

could

must
+ have been The project could have been cancelled had it not been for him.

Importantly, we do NOT form passive structures with intransitive verbs (e.g. She died., not She was died.). Also, when talking about someone’s birth, use the past form of be + born (e.g. He was born in Scotland., not He is born in Scotland.)

Just as in real life, you may use the passive voice at any point during the Speaking and Writing modules of the IELTS. However, keep in mind that the passive voice is used much more frequently in writing than in speaking. In fact, Writing Task 1 may require you to use this structure often, particularly when describing a process (e.g. The materials are then taken to the recycling plant.). If you feel like you need more practice in this area, make sure you set some time aside to focus on improving your grammar while preparing for IELTS.

Keep checking our blog for our next grammar post on modals!



Andrea Castro

Andrea is an experienced English teacher who has worked since 2009 in Costa Rica, Dubai and now Canada. When not working for IELTS, she spends her time with her little girl and her two canine siblings.

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