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If you recall, there are three time references for tense: past, present and future; and four different aspects: simple, perfect, progressive and perfect progressive. When one combines these 3 times 4 possibilities, one gets the 12 different grammatical tenses the English language has. Consider that a synonym of progressive is continuous and they’re both used when naming the tenses.
Below are all the tenses in the active voice, examples of them and some of their functions. Remember that in the active voice the subject is the performer or agent of the action represented by the verb.
Present continuous (progressive)
Present perfect continuous
Past perfect simple
Past perfect continuous
Future simple using “will”
Future simple using “to be going to”
Present continuous for future events
Future perfect simple
Future perfect continuous
Remember: In complex tenses the auxiliary verb bears the time mark, the past participle shows the mark of perfect or finished actions and the gerund shows the mark of ongoing or continuous actions.
If we compared the active and the passive sentence thinking about which is more frequently used, we’d conclude that the active is much more common. You might have not realized, but practically all the examples given until now follow a sentence pattern in which the actor (or agent) is placed ahead of the action word (or verb). Most of the times in passive sentences the actor is not defined and, if it is, it’s preceded by the preposition by.
Think about the difference between saying, “I’m sorry, but right now my colleague is cleaning the toilette” and saying “I’m sorry, but right now the toilette is being cleaned”. The meaning is the same, but in the second sentence, which is in passive voice, the action is emphasized over the doer of the action.
Here are some other examples for you to notice how the focus changes:
They grow rice in Asia vs. Rice is grown in Asia.
You didn’t send us your order on time vs. Your order was not received on time.
The passive voice is often associated to impersonal style, and some of its uses are: when the actor is irrelevant, when the actor is unknown, when it’s best to be vague about who is responsible, and when talking about general truths.
When starting this unit and talking about what defined a verb it was stated that verbs could be categorized as transitive or intransitive; transitive verbs being the ones that transfer the action to something or someone, thus always having an object after them (e.g. The students opened the door; I like you). These are the type of verbs that can be transformed into passive voice, because for there to be a transformation there needs to be a receiver of the action.
Technically, the passive sentence is formed by:
|Active voice sentence||Passive voice sentence|
|The students opened the door.||The door was opened by the students.|
|I like you.||You are liked by me.|
Important! The above is quite a technical explanation and we, as English teachers, have to know what grammatical processes operate in the transformation from active to passive voice. Still, we wouldn’t need to provide such an explanation to our students, unless they are interested in linguistics. L2 learners should rather grasp the concept of the transformation based on transferring the emphasis form one part to another with the corresponding implications in the verb form.
In order to make the transformation into the passive sentence, a central role is played by the main verb and a passive auxiliary to be. Whichever the main verb’s form is: base form, past form, past participle form, etc. the auxiliary verb “to be” will adopt, and the main verb will be transformed into its past participle form. You’ll probably understand this better by looking at these examples:
plays (present simple active voice) is played (present simple passive voice)
played (past simple active) was played (past simple passive)
has played (present perfect active) has been played (present perfect passive)
will play (future simple active) will be played (future simple passive)
Below is a chart with all the tenses in the passive voice, the verb transformation and an example in use. Some usages are quite rare, as for instance the future continuous passive, which is not to be found often in everyday language. Some others are quite common, as the present or the past simple passive, used a lot in historical contexts.
|Present Simple||Play||Is played||The guitar is played by John.|
|Present Continuous||Is playing||Is being played||The guitar is being played now.|
|Present Perfect||Has played||Has been played||The guitar has been played so far.|
|Past Simple||Played||Was played||The guitar was played yesterday.|
|Past Continuous||Was playing||Was being played(not commonly used)||The guitar was being played all day long yesterday.|
|Past Perfect||Had played||Had been played||This guitar had been played by generations of musicians.|
|Future Simple||Will play||Will be played||The guitar will be played tomorrow.|
|Future Continuous||Will be playing||Will be being played(not commonly used)||The guitar will be being played this time tomorrow.|
|Future Perfect||Will have played||Will have been played||By 2020 this guitar will have been played by five generations of musicians.|
The passive auxiliary is normally be, but can sometimes be get. The passive with get is normally found only in informal style and in constructions without an agent:
The boy got hurt on his way home from work.
I got robbed, I got paid, I got my ass kicked.
Direct, indirect and prepositional objects
So far, we’ve talked about objectsas receivers of the action, but there are actually three types of objects: direct (which are things that receive the action of the verb), indirect(which are people that receive the action of the verb), and prepositional (which are things or people introduced by a preposition).
The most common passive transformation is that based on making the direct object of the active sentence the subject of the passive sentence, but that’s not the only transformation in English; also the indirect object and the prepositional object can be made subjects of the passive sentence.
We will illustrate all these transformations with the following examples:
John gave me an apple.
S V I.O. D.O.
- S stands for Subject
- V stands for Verb
- I.O. stands for Indirect Object (me).
- and D.O. stands for Direct Object (apple)
The first possible transformation of this active sentence is by converting the direct object(apple) into the subject of the passive sentence. That way we stress that an apple, and not something else, was given to me. The result is:
An apple was given to me.
S V I.O.
The by-phrase containing the agent of a passive clause is only required in specific cases. Here we have omitted it, but we could add it. The resulting sentence would be: An apple was given to me by John.
There is still another transformation in which we stress the receiver of the verb action, that is, the indirect object. The result is:
I was given an apple.
S V D.O.
Where the new subject (I) is the former indirect object (me).
One last variation of the passive occurs with prepositional verbs, that is, verbs followed by a fixed preposition. In it, the prepositional object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence:
Someone will have to deal with this matter right away.
S Prep. Verb Prep.O.
This matter will have to be dealt with right away.
S Prep. Verb passive
Here are some more examples:
Other possibilities were talked about at the meeting.
I don’t like being stared at.
I hate being laughed at.
Of course teaching the passive voice grammatically -explaining the transformations the verb goes through- would be a possibility, but if you wanted a more practical approach, you could take two pieces of paper. Write JOHN and GUITAR in each and ask students to make a sentence. They would probably form: John plays the guitar. Now change the order of the papers, putting “guitar” before “John”. Again, ask them to make a sentence. They have to come up with: The guitar is played by John. Where do we put the emphasis? What is stressed in each sentence? John or the guitar? The answer, naturally, is in the sentence order of the active or the passive sentence.
We can represent our explanation with the following graph: