ESL Term:

Passive Voice

ESL/EFL Glossary: A Guide to applied linguistics terminology.


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passive voice: A sentence where the subject is receiving the action. This is contrasted with the active voice where the subject is doing the action. To form the passive voice you use the verb 'to be' plus the past participle.

Some examples of passive voice sentences:

Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.

JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Lusitania was sunk in 1917.


The passive voice is often considered weak, and so, should be avoided. The active voice is considered more 'forcible' (see for example The Elements of Style by Strunk and White). However, this is unavoidable when we do not know who is doing the action as in:

Wilfred Owen was killed in the Sambre Canal in 1918.

And in some cases, it may be preferable to use the passive, even if we do know who did the action.

(a) Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter.

(b)The moons of Jupiter were discovered by Galileo.


A is more suitable in a paragraph about the accomplishments of Galileo, but B may be more appropriate in a paragraph about the moons of Jupiter.


For some activities on passive voice please see the Adult ESL section.