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Grammar Essentials: What is the passive voice?

Have you heard the words ‘active’ and ‘passive’ used to talk about verbs in English? Do you know what they mean? These are not tenses, they are voices. Put simply, the active voice shows what something does while the passive voice shows what happens to something. Today we will look at the structure of the passive, why we use it and when you might need it in IELTS.

We make the passive with a form of the verb be + past participle and we only use it with transitive verbs (those that take an object). When you want to change the tense of your sentence you change the be part.

Sentence Structure

Let’s take a look at some of the more common uses of the passive voice.

Using the passive allows you to make choices about what is important. We use the passive when the object is more important than the subject and the agent (who or what is the action) is either obvious, not important or unknown.

You will be asked to show your ID at the test centre.

We don’t need to say who will ask you, we can guess that it will be a person working there.

We use the passive in formal writing to make it less personal and create distance from what we are saying.

Students are advised to contact their tutor to discuss their workload.

The impersonal ‘it’ with a reporting verb can be used in this situation too.

It is considered impolite to talk with your mouth full in many cultures.

It is argued that governments should spend more on public transport.

When we describe a process, we use the passive to show that the process is more important than who did it (this is not the same for natural processes, use active for those). This is probably the way that the passive voice is most useful for the IELTS test, especially if you have to describe a process in Academic Writing Part 1.

Each child was given a book to read and then asked to write a summary of the story. The summaries were analysed by a group of teachers and the most common phrases were highlighted. The phrases were used in the following lesson to develop writing skills and vocabulary.

Using the Passive in IELTS

Knowing how to use the passive voice is essential for understanding texts in both the Reading and Listening IELTS tests. As the passive is often thought of as a more formal structure that is used in formal writing, you probably won’t need to use it in the IELTS Speaking test. You will definitely find it helpful if you need to describe a process in Academic Writing Task 1 and Task 2.

So, let’s have a go. Can you change these sentences from active to passive, you will have to decide when to leave out the subject?

Activity from Page 36 Common Mistakes at IELTS Intermediate

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Here is an Academic Writing Task 1. It’s a perfect example of when you need to use the passive.

Page 191 IELTS Grammar for Bands 6.5 and above

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And finally, have a look at this model essay, underline the correct option, you need to choose between active and passive each time.

Exercise 4 from Page 193 IELTS Grammar for Bands 6.5 and above

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I hope that we have helped you to understand how and when to use the passive in your IELTS preparation. If there is a topic you would like me to blog about next, let us know via our social media channels.


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