Passive voice

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Passive voice is a verbal structure that offers an alternative means to relate the participants in the action or state of a verb compared to active voice.

All verbs can be used in active voice, by which the verb's grammatical subject performs the action of the verb. Many, but not all, verbs can also have one or more objects, which are typically classified as direct, indirect, or reflexive.

Most of the verbs that can have one or more objects can be used in the passive voice, in which one of the active-voice objects (the patient) is the required grammatical subject, while the active-voice subject (the agent) is optionally expressed as a prepositional phrase.

For example, consider this active-voice sentence:

  • Ana (le) dio ese libro a Juan. = Ana gave that book to Juan. (OR) Ana gave Juan that book.
  • Subject: Ana
  • Verb: dio/gave
  • Direct object: ese libro/that book
  • Indirect object: (le)...a Juan/(to) Juan

Comparing passive voice in English and Spanish

English allows using either the direct object or the indirect object of an active voice clause as the subject/patient in an equivalent passive voice clause:

  • That book was given (to Juan) (by Ana). (direct object = "that book" as patient)
  • Juan was given that book (by Ana). (indirect object = "Juan" as patient)

Spanish, however, allows using only the direct object of an active voice clause as the subject-patient in an equivalent passive voice clause:

  • Ese libro (le) fue dado a Juan (por Ana).
  • A Juan le fue dado ese libro (por Ana).

Construction

In English the passive voice is always constructed by replacing the verb with the same form of the verb to be, followed by the past participle. Similary, in Spanish the true passive is always constructed by replacing the verb with the corresponding form of the verb ser, followed by the adjectival past participle of the verb, which always agrees in gender and number with the subject/patient. For example:

  • Juan read the magazines. -> The magazines were read by Juan.
  • Juan leyó las revistas. -> Las revistas fueron leídas por Juan.

Constraints on the passive with ser

The passive with ser in Spanish is used less frequently than the passive with to be in English.

  • Passive with ser is not possible when the proposed grammatical subject would be be an indirect object, or when the verb takes only the third-person object pronouns le or les. She was sent a letter cannot be translated as *Ella fue enviada una carta; the only possible translation is (A ella) le fue enviada una carta. = A letter was sent to her. Similarly, su marido la abandonó can be changed to fue abandonada por su marido, but su marido le pegó cannot be changed to *fue pegada por su marido.
  • The verbs pagar, preguntar and obedecer are exceptions to this constraint, but only when the clause does not include a direct object: fui pagado por el cliente is possible, but *fui pagado el dinero is not possible; valid alternatives include el dinero me fue pagado, se me pagó el dinero, and me pagaron el dinero.
  • The passive voice with ser is not used when the subject of ser has no article: se venden manzanas aquí = Apples are sold here is valid, but *manzanas son vendidas aquí is not valid.
  • The passive voice with ser is rarely used with a present or imperfect tense to describe a single action: normally la ventana es/era cerrada por el chico = The window is/was closed by the boy refers only to a habitual or timeless event. To refer to a single event one could say la ventana fue/ha sido cerrada por el chico, using the preterit or present perfect.
  • The passive voice with ser is not used in reciprocal constructions: one can say se vieron el uno al otro = They saw one another, but not *fueron vistos el uno por el otro = *They were seen by one another.
  • A phrase made up of a preposition and a noun or pronoun cannot become the subject of a Spanish passive sentence. This is different from English; for example: this bed has been slept in must be translated to active voice alguien ha dormido en esta cama; *esta cama ha sido dormido en is not possible.
  • One cannot use the Spanish passive with ser in constructions that involve a verb of perception followed by an infinitive: vi estrellarse el avión = I saw the plane crash can be made passive in English as "the plane was seen to crash", but in Spanish one cannot say *el avión fue visto estrellarse. One must use a se construction instead: se vio cómo se estrellaba el avión.
  • Unattributed beliefs or opinions such as it is said that..., it is believed that, or people thought that are translated using a se construction: se dice que, se cree que, se pensaba que....
  • The passive with ser is not used with a large number of verbs, and there is no obvious reason why. These are more numerous than in English: for example, the window was broken by Jill is okay, but *the stairs were descended by Jill is not. Only experience will teach you which verbs and which circumstances allow using the passive with ser and which do not.

Comparing passive with ser and participle with estar

The passive with ser describes an action, while the participle with estar normally describes a state that arises from an action; the state is not dynamic. For example, la puerta fue abierta = The door was opened, but la puerta estaba abierta = The door was open. Sometimes one must use a special participle with estar: estaba despierto porque había sido despertado por la voz de un hombre.

The participle with estar is not used with perfect (compound tenses): *la ciudad ha/había estado inundada is not possible.


Avoiding the passive with ser

Spanish uses the passive with ser less frequently than English uses the passive with to be, and native speakers of English typically over-use the passive with ser. Common methods of avoiding the passive with ser include:

  • Use active voice instead. This may be stylistically awkward if used too much.
  • Use passive se instead
  • Turn the direct object into the the topic of the sentence by moving it before the verb: this normally requires duplicating the direct object with a direct object pronoun. la explicación hay que buscarla en otra parte.

Alternatives to ser to express passive meaning