Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice is used when the subject of the sentence is unimportant, unknown, or refers to a generalized subject. In the passive voice, the thing that receives the action of the verb comes first, followed by the verb “to be” and the past participle of the main verb. If the actual “subject” of the sentence is stated, it is called “the agent,” and it follows the word “by.” Consider the following examples of the passive voice in English:

  • The jewels were found by the explorers.
  • The game is won by the team that works hardest.

In English, it is recommended that you avoid the passive voice and write sentences in the active voice when writing any formal essay. In reality, the passive voice is quite common in English, both in spoken and written form.

You can tell a sentence is in the active voice if the subject of the sentence is actually doing the action of the verb rather than receiving the action of the verb. If the above examples of the passive voice were written in the active voice, they would read:

  • The explorers found the jewels.
  • The team that works hardest wins the game.

Passive voice created by ser and a past participle

In Spanish, the passive voice is both a commonly used and perfectly acceptable sentence structure. You will find it expressed in two forms. The easiest of the two forms to understand is created exactly as in English: The object or person receiving the action of the verb is followed by a form of the verb ser and a past participle. If the person doing the action of the verb (the agent) is stated, it follows the preposition por:

  • Las joyas fueron encontradas por los exploradores.
  • El partido es ganado por el equipo que se esfuerza más.

There are a few important details to notice in the above examples. The verb ser must be conjugated to go with the subject that precedes it. The subject of a sentence written in the passive voice would be the direct object of a sentence written in the active voice. For example:

  • Active voice: The politician writes the laws. El político escribe las leyes.
  • subject = the politician (el político)
  • Passive voice: The laws are written by the politician. Las leyes son escritas por el político.
  • subject = the laws (las leyes)

The past participle in a passive voice sentence would be the main verb in an active voice sentence. Because the past participle follows the verb ser, it is technically acting like an adjective. Therefore, you must change the ending of the past participle to match the noun it modifies, which is always the subject of a passive voice sentence (placed in front of ser). In the following examples, the ending of the past participle and the noun that it modifies are both underlined:

  • Las casas son pintad as por mis empleados. (The houses are painted by my employees.)
  • Los regalos fueron dad os para su día del santo. (The gifts were given for her saint's day.)

Sometimes, the person doing the action of the verb is not important, so the agent is not mentioned (as in the second example above).

Passive voice created by se

Spanish has another type of passive voice that doesn't exist in the English language. English speakers often use the pronoun “they” when referring to everyone in general (for example, “They sell books in that store”). While this sentence could be used when talking about one specific group of individuals, it is also a way to generalize. The passive voice can also be used to generalize (for example, “Books are sold in that store”). When the subject is not stated and the sentence is in the passive voice, it is understood to be an unknown or generalized subject. For this reason, the Spanish construction that is used to express this idea is considered another type of passive voice.

This type of sentence is created in Spanish by using the reflexive pronoun se followed by the verb to express the idea that “one does it” or “they do it” or “you (in general) do it.” The best way to understand this construction is through examples:

  • Se venden libros en esa tienda.
    • They sell books in that store.
    • Books are sold in that store.
  • Se toma mucho café en Sudamérica.
    • They drink a lot of coffee in South America.
    • A lot of coffee is drunk in South America.
  • Se puede evitar muchos problemas dándole mantenimiento al coche.
    • One can avoid many problems by maintaining one's car.
    • Many problems can be avoided by maintaining one's car.
  • Se encuentran muchos problemas cuando hay una guerra.
    • One encounters many problems when there is a war.
    • Many problems are encountered when there is a war.

A few details are necessary to effectively build a sentence by using the reflexive pronoun to make a sentence passive. First of all, notice that the verb is conjugated in the third person singular (él) form or the third person plural (ellos) form. The one you use depends on the noun that follows the verb. If the noun is singular, the verb is in the él form. If the noun that follows the verb is plural, the ellos form of the verb is used.

Passive voice created by hay que

Another pseudo‐passive voice construction is created by using the word hay, followed by que, followed by an infinitive. For example:

  • Hay que apoyar a los músicos latinos.

This is a highly idiomatic sentence structure that follows no rules and has no English equivalent. This sentence can be translated into English as, “One must support Latin musicians,” or, “Latin musicians must be supported.”