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Free English Lesson – Passive forms and when to use them

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What are the passive forms? Have you ever thought about why the passive forms are used in English? Why so many speakers are confused by them? Let’s chat about that.

This video is aimed at students studying English at level B1+ or higher.

Consider the following passive sentence:

“The 100m record in athletics was broken in 2009 by Usain Bolt.”

Why is the passive used in this sentence? Passive forms may be used for a number of reasons:

  1. The subject is not (as) important: Consider what is most important – the person or the fact that the record was broken? The record is definitely very important since it’s a significant event that only happens rarely. Therefore, the record takes importance and is used as the subject of the sentence.
  2. The subject is obvious: Imagine that you’re an athlete or a runner – you know who Usain Bolt is, and therefore you don’t need to mention who actually broke the record.
  3. The subject is unknown: We know that the record was broken, but we don’t know the name of the record-breaker.

In all three cases, you can show who / what did the action (the agent) by adding them to the end of the sentence (“…by Usain Bolt.”).

Now that we’ve looked at why we use the passive, how is the passive formed? A lot of students get confused here because knowing and applying the passive means having a good idea of grammar tenses. In short, to form the passive we always need 2 things: a form of the verb ‘to be’ and a past participle (‘-ed’ for regular verbs, the third form for regular verbs).

Take a look at the active sentence below:

“Usain Bolt broke the 100m record in 2009.”

In this sentence, the main verb ‘to break’ is in the past simple form “…broke…”. To form the passive we use the past form of ‘to be’ (‘was/were’) and the past participle of ‘to break’ (‘broken’), giving us the sentence:

“The 100m record was broken in 2009.”

For other forms of the verb, use this as a general guideline. Notice how ‘broken’ (the past participle) remains the same regardless of the tense:

Present Simple: am/is/are + past participle – “Records are broken every year.”

Present Continuous: am/is/are being + past participle – “New shoes are being created to break the record.”

Present Perfect: has/have been + past participle – “The record hasn’t been broken since 2009.”

‘will’ future: will be + past participle – “The record will be broken sometime soon.”

‘going to’ future: am/is/are going to be + past participle – “The record is going to be broken soon.”

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