The Passive Voice - Podcast Episode 27


Welcome to episode 27 of The English Sessions. The Passive Voice. I am your host and English teacher, Mike Butler. These podcasts can help you improve your English! Together, we will talk about grammar… pronunciation… structure... and have some fun too. Remember to visit my website, www.englishsessionswithmike.com to contact me for private lessons, and for more content.

You can also read the transcript of this audio on the website, as you listen to this episode.

Listen for these words today:
To cut off - There are many different definitions for this phrasal verb. Today, I use it to describe what it is called when you are driving and someone in their vehicle “pulls into your lane in front of you at a closer distance than you are comfortable with”. I’ll have a picture of this on the website.

Woah! This jerk is cutting this person off

 
To back up - to ‘back up’ traffic means to cause something to really slow down traffic so that there’s a long line of cars all stuck in traffic. I hate it when traffic is backed up on the highway. It’s so frustrating!

Jerk - a ‘jerk’ is a foolish and rude, or mean, person. They are inconsiderate towards others. “Hey, that jerk didn’t leave a tip!”

Custody - the protective care or guardianship of someone or something; it also means ‘imprisonment’. Hmmmm…..

Today I want to talk about the passive voice. No, I’m not talking about what you yell to someone when they cut you off in traffic. No, I’m talking instead about the passive voice in English grammar. It is easier to understand the passive voice if you first understand the active voice. Let’s start there.

Here is a basic active voice structure: subject + verb + object. Mike eats pizza. subject + verb + object. The subject does the action. The subject eats pizza. I am the subject.

ACTIVE VOICE: SUBJECT + VERB + OBJECT
Subject = Mike
Verb = Eats
Object = Pizza

We can take any sentence and make it into a passive voice sentence. However, there are only certain sentences that you want to make passive. Let’s look at my example in the active voice, ‘Mike eats pizza’. subject + verb + object. In the passive voice we will start with the object, pizza. Now, ‘pizza’ is the first word in the sentence. THEN, we must have a form of the verb ‘to be’. That’s right, one of many uses of the verb ‘to be’ is to form the passive voice.

So, we have ‘pizza’, and then a form of ‘to be’. Which form do we choose? Well, it depends on the verb tense you’re using, and if it is singular or plural. “Pizza” is a singular noun, and my sentence, “I like pizza” is in the simple present verb tense. So we must use the form of “to be”: “IS”. Pizza is…

Pizza is… Pizza is… Pizza is what, Mike?! Well, now we need a form of ‘eat’, we need a form of the action verb, and in the passive structure, that form is always the past participle. What’s that? It’s the form that we use with the passive structure, the perfect tenses, and also to create adjectives. So what is the past participle of ‘eat’? “Eaten”! It is an irregular verb.

Okay, so we have ‘pizza is eaten’. Do we need to know who eats the pizza? No! We have the passive voice structure in English because sometimes we don’t know, or don’t need to know, who eats the pizza, or who does the action.

But, you’re thinking, “Mike, we know who eats the pizza. Mike eats the pizza.” We know the subject. Well, okay, that’s true, so if you want to add the person who did the action in the passive voice, you typically add the preposition ‘by’ and then the person, or thing, that did the action, at the end of the clause. So, then, the passive voice sentence becomes ‘Pizza is eaten by Mike’.

ACTIVE STRUCTURE: Mike eats pizza (subject + verb + object)
PASSIVE STRUCTURE: Pizza is eaten by Mike. (object from active structure + ‘to be’ + past participle of action verb + ‘by’ + the person/thing who does the action)

So there we have it, “pizza is eaten by Mike”. But, is this a good use of the passive voice? Remember, I said any sentence can be used in the passive voice, but you don’t always want or need to use it. Also, remember, I said that the passive voice is often for when you don’t know who does the action, or if it is a large group who is doing the action. Also, you can use the passive voice to place emphasis on the object of the action. It is also often used in very formal settings, like courtroom settings, or in official reports. It just sounds really formal sometimes.

So, can we say, “Pizza is eaten by Mike”? Yes, but there is no need to. “Mike eats pizza” is much better, and sounds much better, because we know exactly who eats the pizza, and we’re not trying to put emphasis on the pizza, or sound very formal about it.

You know what’s a better sentence for the passive voice? How about, “A million pizzas are eaten every day in the world”. That’s a better passive voice sentence, because we don’t know exactly who is eating the pizza. It’s a better sentence for the passive voice.

We never know who is going to crave a slice of pizza


After the break, I will provide examples of when to use the passive voice in English.

BREAK

The example I always give to my students for the passive voice is this: “My house was built in 2007”. Why use the passive voice? Because most people don’t know who built their house. Or, maybe they know the construction company that built the house, but that’s still a group of people, and perhaps all of the names of those people who work for the company are not known to you. It’s easier just to say, “My house was built in 2007”. What is the form of ‘to be’ here? “WAS”. That’s right, because this sentence is in the past. This happened, 13 years ago. “WAS” is the simple past form of ‘to be’ with the singular noun, ‘house’. The Parthenon was built between the years of 447 and 432 B.C.E

Okay, so we use the passive structure when the person, or thing, who does the action is not very clear. The house was built in 2007. The mail was delivered at 7pm. The traffic was backed up because a jerk cut someone off and caused an accident.

I also said we use it to provide emphasis, with the idea, perhaps, that the first word in a sentence is what people will remember. Penicillin was first discovered in 1928. Perfect! I can’t think of too many things in the history of humanity more important than the use of penicillin. Penicillin saved my life. So, ‘penicillin was first discovered in 1928’. Can we say, ‘Alexander Fleming’ discovered penicillin? Yes. We can also, of course, say ‘penicillin was first discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming’. But, to be honest, I think at this point in history, penicillin itself is more important than Alexander Fleming. This also, in my opinion, ignores the important roles of scientists like Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, who both helped to prove the antibacterial effects of penicillin.

Okay, so use the passive voice when you don’t know the subject of the action, or the subject of the action is not very clear, use the passive voice when you want to emphasize the importance of the object of the action, instead of the subject of the action. Ok okay. It’s used in legal, and formal settings, ok okay. For some reason, it’s often used with works of art or literature. The book was written by Stephen King in 1981. The book was written by Stephen King in 1981. Even when we don’t have the name of the book, we will see this use of the passive voice. Cujo was written by Stephen King in 1981. Roadwork was published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1981 as well. The main emphasis seems to be on the work of art or literature, and not the artist or author.

I want to talk about one more important use of the passive voice. That is: for manipulation. It is a way to avoid owning the responsibility of one’s action. Remember my example, “The traffic was backed up because a jerk cut someone off and caused an accident”. We want to put the blame on the jerk. That jerk caused the accident because they were being a big stupid jerk! We want to blame the jerk. But, what if I said, “The traffic was backed up because someone was cut off and caused an accident”. That doesn’t seem very fair. Yes, it is still technically true, but now the blame is not on the jerk. The jerk isn’t even mentioned because it is in the passive voice! I personally would not use the passive voice here, because it unfairly shifts the blame to the victim.

Why is this important? Well, because we do this all the time, in the media. It probably happens in your language too, because of course the passive voice is not just used in English. Let’s look at an example from the New York Times. The headline reads: “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody”. Do you think this New York Times headline is accurately describing what happened? Do you think this New York Times headline accurately conveys the reality of the situation? It’s not technically a lie, but wow(!) what a great technique for shifting blame or ‘culpability’. How about this alternative: “How Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd”. That changes how we view the news event a bit, doesn’t it? This is the power of the passive voice. Use it for good, not evil, my listeners.

Do you have any examples from the media of a manipulative use of the passive voice that you’d like to share? Leave a message for me on the website. Write in to the podcast. I’d love to discuss them with you!! Let’s look at examples in your native language as well!

How many times did I use the passive voice just trying to explain what the passive voice is?

Any questions? Write to me at mike@englishsessionswithmike.com . Leave a message for me on the website, www.englishsessionswithmike.com and I will play it on the podcast. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you won’t miss an episode. Visit www.englishsessionswithmike.com for more content. Please rate and review The English Sessions on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media. Twitter @theEsessions; Instagram @englishsessionswithmike; Search for The English Sessions on Facebook. Until next time, this is Mike signing off.  

https://boards.straightdope.com/t/how-do-you-define-being-cut-off-while-driving/532914
https://www.rightthisminute.com/sites/default/files/videos/images/carcutoff.jpg
https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/parthenon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penicillin
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html



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