The cake was made by my sister: how to use the passive in English.

by Liz Walter​
Look at these two sentences:

My sister made the cake.

The cake was made by my sister.

Both these sentences mean the same. The first is an active sentence: it tells you what the sister did. The second is a passive sentence: it tells you what happened to the cake.

Here are some more passive sentences. Note that we use by before the person or thing that does something, and with before the thing that is used to do it:

‘Hamlet’ was written by Shakespeare.

The pieces of wood were cut by a machine.

The rope was cut with a sharp knife.

All the sentences I’ve shown you so far are in the past simple. That is probably the first passive form you will learn. It is formed with was/were + past participle.

However, passives can be formed with other tenses too. You just need the correct form of the verb be + the past participle, for example:

The rooms are cleaned every day. (present)

I was being treated by a doctor in London. (past continuous)

The children have been told to wait quietly. (present perfect)

Dinner will be provided. (future)

To form a negative passive, simply add not (or n’t):

The rooms aren’t cleaned every day.

Dinner will not be provided.

So why do we use the passive? One reason is to emphasize the main topic of your writing:

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming. (Penicillin is more important than Fleming in this piece.)

In addition, we often use the passive when we don’t know who or what did an action or when it’s not important who or what did an action:

The lights are turned on at 8pm. (It doesn’t matter who turns them on.)

The bricks had been damaged. (We don’t know who or what damaged them.)

To make these sentences active, we would need to say ‘Someone turns the lights on…’, ‘Something had damaged …’. This is fine, but it sounds a little bit informal, so the passive would be better for more formal contexts.

We often use the passive in scientific or academic writing:

The results were then analysed.

Patients had been given three doses of the drug.

Another reason for using the passive is to avoid blaming someone or taking responsibility yourself. For instance, you could say:

The figures were recorded incorrectly.

All the documents have been destroyed.

I hope that this blog makes passives clearer and that they will be used correctly in future!

12 thoughts on “The cake was made by my sister: how to use the passive in English.

  1. Namagembe Beatrice Diana

    It’s for sure amazing. Have learnt things Have never got chance ti learn since my childhoood.
    There explanations are so Clear, thank you so much.

  2. Liz Walter

    No, that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s quite a subtle distinction, but it’s to do with whether you’re focussing more on the person or thing that does the action, in which case you use ‘by’, or on the thing that is used to do it, in which case you use ‘with’. So potentially you could use either in the piece of wood sentence, depending on whether you were emphasizing that it was a machine rather than a person doing the action, or that is was a machine that was used.

  3. Piotr

    While reading the beginning of your article I spotted: “The first ….. , the second … .” As far as I know, when we talk about 2 things, “the first one” is correct. However, “the other one” should be used instead of the second one. Am I right? Because, to be honest, I’m being a little confused reading that. Please, correct me or yourself.
    Looking forward to your quick reply.

  4. Pingback: Transitive or intransitive; Countable or uncountable – what does it all mean?? – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

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