Chapter 17   --   Active or Passive?

When we talk about action, we distinguish between someone or something doing an action, which we call the active voice, and someone or something which is acted upon, which we call the passive voice.
For example, when a baker makes a pastry, we describe an active process which is done by the baker, so we speak in the active voice.

To refer to the pastry, however, we say that the pastry was prepared by the baker.   The action was done to the pastry, so we speak in the passive voice.
The action of baking was done by the baker, and the result was the pastry.

Here are some more examples.

                   Active voice                                      Passive voice

He hit the ball out of the park.                          The ball was hit out of the park.

Joseph wrote this grammar book.                      This grammar book was written by Joseph.

Martin rolled a perfect strike.                            A perfect strike was rolled by Martin.

Sharon will send the package.                           The package will be sent by Sharon.

The dog bit the man.                                        The man was bitten by the dog.


Both English and Spanish use the same grammatical structure to express the passive voice, and there are two forms in both languages.

          1. The most common form in English is the use of the verb to be plus the past form of the action verb and the preposition by.
For example, “The role is sung by a tenor.   The houses were built by carpenters.   The plane will be flown by a pilot”.
This form is identical in Spanish, however, it is employed (notice the passive voice!) only when the person or persons who performed the action are known to the speaker.

examples:    The picture was painted by Picasso.                 La pictura fue pintada por Picaso.

                   The text was written by Joseph.                      El texto fue escrito por José.

                   The opera was composed by Mozart.              La ópera fue compuesta por Mozart.

                   My family has been invited by John.               Mi familia ha sido invitada por Juán.


          2. In Spanish, when the person or persons who performed the action are unknown to the speaker, an impersonal form is used (here’s the passive voice again!).

          examples:    The bank was robbed today.                 Se robó el banco hoy.                                              [We don’t know who the robbers were.]

                             The pyramids were built in Egypt.        Se construyeron las pirámides en Egipto.              [The pyramid builders are unknown to us.]


In English, it is common to say things in a personal manner, even when nothing personal is actually meant.

          examples:    When do they open the store?               [We don’t know who will open the store.]

                             Does the store open at 8AM?               [We know that people open the store.]

We also make references to action which will be done by people who are unknown to us.

          example:      He will be punished for his crime.           [We don’t know who will do it.]

Likewise, we speak in general terms when the person is indefinite.

          example:      One can only do one’s best.                  [In this case, the word one does not refer to a specific person.]


In Spanish, all of these ideas are expressed using the impersonal form.

examples :    ¿Cuándo se abre la tienda?      When do they open the store?

                   Se castigará al criminal.           The criminal will be punished.

                   Se habla español aquí.              Spanish is spoken here.

In these examples, the persons who do the action are unknown to the speaker.   This form is the most common way to express the passive voice in Spanish.

In Spanish, impersonal expressions such as “it is hoped.(se espera)”..“they say   (se dice)”..and so on, are translated with the impersonal form of the passive voice.

[ The common sentence “Se habla español” really means “Spanish is spoken.” ]


This book is available from under item number 3352644. Books purchased from Lulu are accompanied by a complete list of irregular verbs and all of their forms.

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