Section 5: Passive Structure

The traditional definition of the passive voice is that the “subject” of the clause is the receiver of the action and is "deleted" (or occurs as the direct object), rather than as the do-er of the action and the subject . And while many try in vain to accurately analyze for the subject and object of a particular clause or try to determine who (or what) is actually the do-er of the action, in reality the passive is best identified as a grammatical structure: BE + [-en].

If this was a syntax textbook, we would spend a good bit of time describing the "passive transformation." For our purposes in Analyzing Grammar in Context, however, we only want you to recognize a single KEY MARKER in the main verb phrase: BE + [-en].

In short, the auxiliary combination BE + [-en] identifies the passive voice, and this is the only thing that you need to look for. When you decompose a main verb phrase as a passive form, BE + [-en] will always be there. For example:


Jane threw the ball.
Simple Past

Jane is throwing the ball.
Present Progressive
PRESENT + BE + [-ing] + THROW


The ball was thrown by Jane.
Past Passive
PAST + BE + [-en] + THROW

The ball is thrown by Jane.
Present Passive
PRESENT + BE + [-en] + THROW

While we will discuss Active vs. Passive in greater detail when we examine style and rhetorical choice, in this simple example it is quite easy to determine the do-er of the action and the receiver of the action; however, the key to recognizing a passive structure should start and end at the main verb phrase.

Remember, when BE is an auxiliary, the common (or active) inflection is the progressive form: BE + [-ing]. When analyzing the main verb phrase, suspect a passive construction whenever BE is an auxiliary and the progressive form (+ [-ing]) is NOT there.

Millions of dollars are wasted by defense industries each year.

Food will be donated by a caterer.

A new house is being built down the street.

Our refrigerator has just been repaired.

As a matter of course, you should be able to turn an active sentence into a passive and vice versa:

Local growers will sell freshly-picked vegetables at the farmer's market during the summer.

Freshly-picked vegetables will be sold at the farmer's market during the summer.

A large variety of used books are sold by the library at their annual fundraiser.

The library sells a large variety of used books at their annual fundraiser.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Remember, passives are NOT the same as past tense. The passive is a main verb phrase that can take either present tense or past tense. What can be confusing is that the main verb in the passive structure takes the perfect inflection [-en], which will often take the irregular [-ed] form. For example,

1. The boy is tricked into clucking like a chicken.

2. SOMEONE tricked the boy into clucking like a chicken.

The first is a passive construction (BE + [-en]). However, it's present tense (IS).

The second is past tense (PAST + TRICK).

TENSE inflects in the MVP Formula at the beginning of the phrase and only the first element that follows TENSE. Again, DO NOT look at the end of the Main Verb Phrase and assume tense. It’s a very bad habit to get into.

Finally keep in mind that although it is the lone exception to the Main Verb Phrase Formula, the Passive is really just another Main Verb Phrase Form that you must account for. Besides the Present Passive and Past Passive that I described above, you can have other variations, as well.

You can have a Present Perfect Passive:

The girl has been seen by her friends.

Present + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-en] + see

You can have a Past Perfect Passive:

The girl had been seen by her friends.

Past + HAVE + [-en] + BE + [-en] + see

You can even have a Present and Past Progressive Passive (although it begins to get a bit clunky):

The girl is being seen by her friends.

Present + BE + [-ing] + BE + [-en} + see

The girl was being seen by her friends.

Past + BE + [-ing] + BE + [-en} + see

Technically, you can go right down the list through the Perfect Progressive, but it really grates on the ears.

To test your understanding of the concepts discussed on this page, begin with the link below for an example practice exercise:


For a bit more of a challenge, analyze the following sentence from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for passives.

When Dorothy was standing in the doorway, nothing could be seen but the great gray prairie on every side. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the tops of the long blades had been baked by the sun for decades, until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.

To review your answers to these two samples, check the PASSIVE SAMPLES ANALYSES page.