Not all verbs can have passive forms. Passive structures are not possible with intransitive verbs which cannot have objects. The sentences given below, for instance, cannot be used in the passive because there is nothing to become the subject of the passive sentence.
- The baby cried.
- The water boils.
- The patient died.
Some transitive verbs (e.g. fit, have, lack, resemble, suit etc), too, are not used in the passive.
- She has an Alsatian dog. (NOT An Alsatian dog is had by her.)
- This coat doesn’t fit me. (NOT I am not fitted by this coat.)
- She resembles a princess. (NOT A princess is resembled by her.)
- You lack tact. (NOT Tact is lacked by you.)
Some prepositional phrases are mainly used in the active voice. Examples are: agree with and walk into.
- She walked into the hall. (NOT The hall was walked into by her.)
- He did not agree with me. (NOT I was not agreed with by him.)
As there are no clear rules about this, students have to learn which verbs cannot be used in the passive.
Common mistakes in the use of passive voice
Students often confuse active and passive verb forms in English.
- Incorrect: I was very interesting in the story.
- Correct: I was very interested in the story.
- Incorrect: He was punishing for his crimes.
- Correct: He was punished for his crimes.
- Incorrect: We were questioning by the inspector.
- Correct: We were questioned by the inspector.
All the sentences given above are in the passive simple past tense. The passive forms of the simple past tense are made with was / were + past participle form of the verb. –ing forms, on the other hand, are used to make active forms of the continuous tenses.
- She was calling. (Active – past continuous)
- She was called. (Passive – simple past)
- She has called. (Active – present perfect)
- She has been called. (Passive – present perfect)