Grammar Bite #5: Mistakes with passive voice

11 November 2010

 

Common mistakes

1. The broken pipe was first appeared last month.

2. Martin’s accident was occurred on the Tuen Mun Highway.

3. We were questioning by the immigration officer at the airport.

 

What’s required for passive voice

You form a passive voice sentence by

--making the object in an active voice sentence the subject

--using passive verb forms

 

Here’s an example that compares active and passive voice:

 

Active voice: My grandfather built this house in 1930.

 

Here, the subject of the sentence is ‘my grandfather’; ‘built’ is the verb; ‘this house’ is the object.

 

Passive voice: This house was built in 1930.  OR  This house was built by my grandfather in 1930.

 

In this sentence, ‘this house’ is now the subject. The verb form is ‘was built’. In the second sentence I added the ‘by’ phrase since I know who did the action.

 

Passive verb forms

Passive verb forms combine these two things: a form of to be plus the past participle of the verb.

 

Be verbs include the following: am, is, are, was, were, is being/was being, has been/have been and had been.

 

Requirement: transitive verbs

Remember – the object of an active voice sentence becomes the subject in a passive voice sentence. Therefore, the verbs in passive sentences MUST be transitive. That is, they must be verbs that can have an object.

 

To find out if a verb is transitive or intransitive, look it up in a dictionary. Transitive verbs will have [T] next to them; intransitive verbs will have [I] next to them.

 

What’s wrong?

Let’s look at the mistakes above. Do you know what’s wrong with them?

 

1. The broken pipe was first appeared last month.

In this sentence, the verb ‘appear’ is an intransitive verb. It cannot have an object. Therefore, you cannot use ‘appear’ in a passive voice sentence.

 

To correct this sentence, make it active voice: The broken pipe first appeared last month.

 

2. Martin’s accident was occurred on the Tuen Mun Highway.

The same applies in this sentence. ‘Occur’ is an intransitive verb, so it cannot be used in passive voice.

 

To correct this sentence, make it active voice: Martin’s accident occurred on the Tuen Mun Highway.

 

3. We were questioning by the immigration officer at the airport.

In this sentence, the verb ‘question’ is transitive, so you can use it in passive voice. However, this sentence uses the wrong form—‘questioning’. It needs to be the past participle form–‘questioned’.

 

The correct form of this sentence is this: We were questioned by the immigration officer at the airport.

 

When to use passive voice

Use passive voice in three situations:

--When you don’t know who did something. For example, My handbag was stolen.

--When the action is more important than who did it. For example, John was just promoted at work.

--When you want to avoid blaming someone. For example, The outstanding payment hasn’t yet been paid.

 

Otherwise…

In other cases, it’s better to use active voice. There are two benefits to this:

--Your writing will be more energetic and engaging.

--You can avoid making grammar mistakes like those above. 

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