The Passive Voice
And How To Avoid It


The active voice is the “normal” or at least the far more frequent way of expressing an action in English and Spanish:

Ella

escribió

varios dramas.

  She wrote several plays.

(doer)

(action)

(thing done)

(subject)

(verb)

(direct object)

Nosotros

vimos

a

Juana.

  We saw Juana.

(doer)

(action)

(done-to)

(subject)

(verb)

(direct object)

In the active voice, the “doer” is the subject of the verb. The “thing done” or the person “done-to” is the object of the verb. In the passive voice: the “thing done” or the person “done-to” becomes the subject of the verb and the “doer” —if one is given— becomes the agent (introduced by the word “by” in English or por in Spanish):

Los dramas fueron escritos por ella.   The plays were written by her.
 
Juana fue vista por varias personas. Juana was seen by several people.

Note that as is demonstrated above regarding the passive voice in Spanish:

  1. The passive voice is formed by using the verb ser plus the past participle of a transitive verb (i.e., a verb which must be capable of taking a direct object).

  2. The past participle must agree in gender and number with the subject of the verb. In essence you are linking the subject and the past participle —as if it were an adjective— with the verb ser.

  3. The passive voice in Spanish is most frequently used in the preterit, although in theory it can occur in any tense, both in the indicative and in the subjunctive.

There are some English sentences in which the subject is the indirect object; these cannot be translated into Spanish using the passive voice unless something is changed:

Jaime was given the award by the president.   Change to: The president gave Jaime the award. [El presidente le dio el premio a Jaime.] or The award was given to Jaime by the president. [El premio fue dado a Jaime por el presidente.]

It is important to remember that the passive voice represents an ACTION as opposed to a state or a condition. Usually, one of two things is given or at least implied in the sentence to help indicate that an action is involved: 1) the agent (as stated above, introduced by “by” in English), or 2) the time at which the action took place. In other words, the sentence uses the passive voice (ser —and not estar— plus the past participle) if it answers the question ¿Quién lo hizo? / ¿Por quién fue hecho? or ¿Cuándo ocurrió? / ¿Cuándo fue hecho?.

Los libros fueron publicados por Espasa-Calpe.   The books were published by Espasa-Calpe.
 
Las colonias fueron establecidas en el Siglo XVI.   The colonies were established in the 16th Century.

In contrast, the verb estar is used together with the past participle to indicate a state or condition (not an action):

Los libros estuvieron escritos en español.   The books were written in Spanish. [Were in a written state.]
 
Las colonias estuvieron establecidas en la costa oriental. The colonies were established on the east coast.


How To Avoid The Passive Voice

The passive voice is not frequently used in Spanish. Usually several other methods of expressing an idea are used instead:

  1. The regular active voice. If an agent is given, use it as the subject. For example, instead of “Much fun was had by all”, write “Everyone had a lot of fun.”

  2. The indefinite “they” as the subject. Instead of “It is said that...”, use “They say that...” (Dicen que...).

  3. The reflexive. Use Se habla español for “Spanish is spoken” [litterally, “Spanish speaks itself”].Constructions with the reflexive pronoun se are very common in Spanish. Remember a few details here:

    1. For non-personal subjects, the verb agrees with the subject in number:

      Se vende un coche magnífico en la subasta.   A magnificent car is being sold at the auction.
       
      Se venden varios coches. Several cars are being sold.

    2. If an animate being is involved, use the personal a for this object and use the verb in the singular.

      Se ve a mi hermana en la clase.   My sister can be seen in the class.
       
      Se ve a mis hermanas en la clase. My sisters can be seen in the class.
      [Without the personal a, the first sentence above would mean “My sister sees herself in class”, and the second would be grammatically incorrect.]

Note that in some cases verbs which are “passive” in one language are active in another: nacer = to be born.

Yo nací el primero de junio.   I was born on the first of June.

[Practice]

[S210 Main Page]


Contact: Fred F. Jehle

Home: http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/

Indiana University - Purdue University Ft. Wayne
Fort Wayne, IN 46805-1499 USA

URL: http://users.ipfw.edu/jehle/courses/passive.htm