How to Master the Passive Voice in Spanish
Surprisingly, the passive voice in Spanish works in a similar way to the English passive voice—that is, they indicate that the action of the verb itself is more important than whoever is carrying it out.
While this form may be somewhat common, the passive voice is far from natural as a way of speaking or even writing. Mastering the passive voice in Spanish implies understanding the limits of its use.
Today, I’ll show you the differences between the English passive voice and its Spanish counterpart, how the passive voice differs from the active voice, and how to form passive voice sentences in Spanish.
You’ll also learn how to use the passive voice in different tenses, when to use it, and maybe more importantly, when not to use it.
What is the Passive Voice?
The passive voice in Spanish and English is a grammar construct that emphasises the action (verb) over the person, animal or thing carrying it out. In active voice, the subject performs the action—meanwhile in the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
Take a look at this example in English:
Active voice: Elsa ate the sandwich.
Elsa is the subject, the doer, and actively performs an action upon the sandwich.
Passive voice: The sandwich was eaten by Elsa.
The sandwich is the subject, and the receiver of the action of being eaten. By default, Elsa becomes an indirect object.
The Passive Voice in Spanish
There are two ways in Spanish to express these passive sentences in which “who” or “what” producing the action is not important.
One is the passive voice as such, and the other is the passive se or pasiva refleja.
I’ll show you how to use both of them, but first let’s see how the passive voice in Spanish differs from the English one.
Passive Voice in Spanish vs English
To start, the passive voice in Spanish is not as common as it is in English. That’s not to say that you don’t need it, but the passive voice in Spanish is considered a more formal way of expression.
For that reason, it’s not as routine as the active voice in Spanish.
The second main difference from English is the passive se, a type of sentence that has no equivalent in English and translates simply as passive voice, as you’ll see in a moment.
Active Voice vs Passive Voice in Spanish
Active voice emphasizes “who” or “what” as it carries the action. It’s the most common way of speaking, both in English and Spanish.
Ronaldo anotó el gol de la victoria en el último minuto.
Ronaldo scored the winning goal at the last minute.
On the other hand, the passive voice emphasizes the action. In this case, “who” or “what” is carrying the action is not important, and can even be left out of the sentence.
El gol de la victoria fue anotado en el último minuto por Ronaldo.
The winning goal was scored at the last minute by Ronaldo.
Notice how the subject (Ronaldo) went from the beginning of the sentence in the active voice, to the end of the sentence in the passive voice.
How to Form the Passive Voice in Spanish
You can form the passive voice in two ways:
- Ser (to be) + verb in past participle + por (by)
- Se + verb in 3rd person
Passive Voice Formula Using Ser
This passive voice formula in Spanish works exactly the same as the English passive voice. To master how to use this formula, keep these four rules in mind:
- The object in the active sentence becomes the subject in the passive sentence.
- Use the verb ser (to be) and the main verb in its past participle form.
- Make sure to check that the past participle and the passive subject agree in gender and number.
- If needed, the passive agent may be added at the end of the sentence following the preposition por.
This way, the complete structure of a passive voice sentence would be as follows:
Subject + ser (to be) + verb in past participle + complement + por (if needed)
El gol de la victoria + fue + anotado + en el último minuto + por Ronaldo.
The winning goal + was + scored + at the last minute + by Ronaldo.
Passive “Se” versus Impersonal “Se”
The second way of forming passive voice sentences in Spanish is by using the word se and a verb in third person.
Se metió un gol en el último minuto.
A goal was scored at the last minute.
Se buscan maestros de español.
Spanish teachers wanted.
Sé vs Se vs Se
Although this passive voice formula in Spanish is quite straightforward, its difficulty comes from the word se, which has various uses in the Spanish language.
Sé, with an orthographic accent over the letter e is a conjugation of the verb saber (to know). Because of the accent, it’s easier to distinguish, so you can forget about this one for a moment.
However, there’s another use for se that’s not so easy to differentiate: the impersonal se
This construct uses a similar structure to that of passive voice se. When you want to make general statements that don’t refer to a specific person, you use impersonal expressions.
The issue here is that the formula for impersonal se sentences is:
Se + singular verb in third person
But wait, you’re wondering—isn’t that the same formula as the one used for passive se sentences?
Yes, it is.
One way to distinguish the difference is that impersonal se sentences use only the third person singular, not plural. So, if you have a plural verb, you can be sure it’s a passive se.
Also, in the impersonal se there’s never a specific noun doing the action, instead it refers to people in general.
Examples of impersonal se sentences:
¿Se puede pasar?
Can I come in?
The Passive Voice in Various Tenses
Now, let’s see how you can use the passive voice in Spanish in different tenses. Here I’ll take a sentence in active voice and rework it to be passive in various tenses:
El maestro califica los exámenes.
The teacher grades the tests.
Los exámenes son calificados (por el maestro).
The tests are graded (by the teacher).
Los exámenes eran calificados.
The tests were graded.
Los exámenes fueron calificados.
The tests were graded.
Los exámenes han sido calificados.
The tests have been graded.
Los exámenes habían sido calificados.
The tests had been graded.
Los exámenes serán calificados.
The tests will be graded.
Future Perfect Tense
Los exámenes habrán sido calificados.
The tests will have been graded.
Los exámenes serían calificados.
The tests would be graded.
Los exámenes habrían sido calificados.
The tests would have been graded.
When to Use the Passive Voice in Spanish
As said before, the passive voice in Spanish is more formal which limits its use only for certain situations:
- When the subject of the passive sentence is more important than who did the action.
- When you deliberately want to omit the agent in a sentence.
- Academic, technical, or legal texts.
When Not to Use the Passive Voice in Spanish
Try not to overuse the passive voice in Spanish, as native speakers only use it for the specific situations stated above. You don’t want to use the passive voice in the following situations:
- When speaking with your friends and family.
- When the subject carrying the action is important.
- Most of the time. If you don’t have a good reason to use the passive voice in Spanish, then don’t use it.
La Voz Pasiva Ha Sido Entendida
“The passive voice has been understood,” or at least that’s my hope. The passive voice in Spanish, as many other grammar constructs, is just another tool that allows you to express yourself in a more comprehensive way. It’s important to understand how it works, but also to remember not to abuse it.
You can master the passive voice in Spanish today, just sign up for a free trial class with one of our certified teachers from Guatemala and start using the passive voice in a real conversation with a native Spanish speaker!
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