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IELTS grammar study guide: the passive voice

Published on April 29, 2019

Welcome back! In this five-part series, we’re exploring a variety of complex grammatical structures that you can use on your IELTS. In our previous post, we focused on relative clauses and looked at different strategies to help you improve your own use of this grammar structure. Today, we’ll be looking at the passive voice.

Active voice vs passive voice

Voice is the term we use to describe the relation between the participants in an event (subject, object) and the action (or state, in some cases). Verbs can be either active or passive in voice. In a sentence written in the active voice, the relationship between the subject and the verb is pretty straight forward: the subject is the doer (e.g. He cancelled the meeting.). In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject is not the doer. Instead, the subject receives the action (e.g. The meeting was cancelled.).

A look at the passive voice

The passive voice is used when the person or thing affected by the action is the focus rather than the person or thing that performs the action. In the sentence “ The meeting was cancelled.”, the reader’s attention goes to the meeting. Even though the passive voice is more frequently used in writing, especially in more formal or academic contexts, it can also be used in speaking in the following situations:

when it is not important to know who the doer is

  • The church was built in the 1600’s.

when we do not know who the doer is

  • That’s when I realized my bag had been stolen.

when people in general are the doers

  • As much as 95% of the world’s oceans haven’t been explored.

when it is obvious who the doer is

  • Some celebrities just hate being interviewed.

If we want to say who or what performs the action when using the passive voice, we use the preposition by ( by + doer). However, keep in mind that when we’re interested in the doer, oftentimes it is better to switch to the active voice.



“The Better Angels of our Nature” was written by Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker wrote “The Better Angels of our Nature”.

My house was decorated by a professional interior designer.

A professional interior designer decorated my house.

Forming the passive voice

We form the passive voice using the appropriate form of the verb to be and the past participle ( built, stolen, explored, etc.), and it can be used with the following tenses:


verb form


present simple




+ past participle

The roasted beans are crushed to form a liquor.

present continuous




+ being + past participle

The painting is being auctioned.

past simple



+ past participle

Most of the money was spent on food and clothing.

past continuous



+ being + past participle

I knew we were being watched.

present perfect simple



+ been + past participle

This problem has been known for many years, yet people choose to ignore it.

past perfect simple


+ been + past participle

His sister had been brought up in Malaysia.

modal simple









+ be + past participle

Overall, it can be seen that the most significant sources of energy were gas and coal.

modal perfect simple





+ have been + past participle

The show should have been cancelled.

Note that intransitive verbs, that is verbs that do not take a direct object, cannot be used in the passive voice (e.g. “ He died.”, not “ He was died .”). Likewise, some state verbs, such as belong, lack, and resemble, can only be used in the active voice.

Because the passive voice is used more frequently in the Writing section of IELTS Academic test, you may need to use this structure more often in Writing Task 1, particularly when describing a diagram (e.g. The water is then treated with chemicals and stored in tanks.) However, make sure you do not overuse the passive; you should try to show the examiner a range of grammatical structures.

Stay tuned for our next post on modals!