Active voice sentences have a verb, a subject that performs the action of the verb, and, sometimes, a direct object that is affected by the action of the verb. However, in the passive voice, the focus is shifted away from the “doer” and the direct object (of the active sentence) now becomes the subject (of the passive sentence). The original subject moves after the verb and becomes the object of por (by), and the verb becomes a past participle introduced by the verb ser (to be):
Juan escribió esta novela. → Esta novela fue escrita por Juan.
Juan wrote this novel. This novel was written by Juan.
The passive voice is used much more often in English than in Spanish. Spanish prefers the use of active sentences or the Spanish passive se instead.
Are you ready to learn more about how to form the passive voice? Do you want to know when to use the passive voice? Keep on reading to find answers to these questions.
Table of Contents
For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.
How do you form the passive voice in Spanish?
I’m sure most of the sentences you have learned and uttered in Spanish have used the active voice. This means that the agent (the thing or the person performing the action of the verb) is the subject. Conversely, the thing or person being affected by the action described by the verb is the direct object:
Juan escribió esta novela. Juan wrote this novel.
However, when we use the passive voice, the direct object in an active sentence becomes the subject. The agent, normally the subject, becomes the object of the preposition por (by):
Esta novela fue escrita por Juan. This novel was written by Juan.
Only transitive verbs can be used in the passive voice, because the direct object of the active voice is what will become the subject of the passive sentence.
The verb in the active sentence (escribió (wrote)) undergoes the following changes:
- The verb becomes a past participle, which agrees in gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) with its new subject: novela → escrita (written).
- The past participle is preceded by a form of the verb ser (to be) in the same tense as the original active verb (in this case, escribió is in the preterite tense), which agrees with the new subject: fue “it (the novel) was.”
For a reminder on how to form the past participle in Spanish, click the link!
⤷TIP One consequence of this is that ser can be conjugated in any tense. However, it’s most commonly used with the preterite, the present perfect, the pluperfect, and the future.
To review the different tenses of ser check out our tables!
In the passive voice, the Spanish past participle acts like an adjective, so remember to do the agreement with the noun it modifies. For instance:
Las tareas fueron completadas por los alumnos.
The assignments were completed by the students.
El carro ha sido comprado por su hermano.
The car has been bought by her brother.
Finally, the agent preceded by por is optional. In some cases, where the agent could be either irrelevant or obvious, we can just get rid of it without affecting the meaning of the sentence.
Las tareas fueron completadas por los alumnos. = Las tareas fueron completadas.
The assignments were completed (by the students).
To sum up this section so far, the passive voice has the following components:
SUBJECT + FORM OF SER + PAST PARTICIPLE + (POR + AGENT)
When (not) to use the passive voice in Spanish
The passive voice is used much more frequently in English than in Spanish. The passive voice in Spanish is used in both very formal written styles and in the written journalistic style. On the other hand, the following cases show how the passive voice is typically used in English, whereas other types of sentences are preferred in Spanish.
Todos los estudiantes terminaron el examen./
El examen fue terminado por todos los estudiantes.
All the students finished the test. / The test was finished by all the students.
Me entregaron el paquete puntualmente./
El paquete fue entregado puntualmente.
They delivered the package on time. / The package was delivered on time.
Se habla español./
El español es hablado.
Spanish is spoken.
Se venden libros./
Los libros son vendidos.
Books are sold.
To replace absent or irrelevant subjects, we can also use the following options:
- The ellos, ellas, usted form of a verb, but without the subject pronoun:
Hablan español. (They) speak Spanish.
- La gente (people): La gente habla español. The people speak Spanish.
- Uno (one): Uno habla español. One speaks Spanish.
Despite the previous strategies, the use of passive se is the most natural and, therefore, the preferred way to express sentences with an absent or irrelevant agent.
Le dieron un regalo a Juan/
Juan fue dado un regalo.
They gave Juan a present/Juan was given a present.
Direct object: It’s the person, animal, or thing that directly receives the action of the verb in a sentence. You can identify it by asking ¿qué? (what?) or ¿a quién? (who?).
Ana writes letters. What does Ana write? → letters (direct object)
Ana escribe cartas. ¿Qué escribe Ana? → cartas
Indirect object: It’s the person, animal, or thing that indirectly receives the action of the verb in a sentence. You can identify it by asking ¿a quién? (to/for whom)
Ana writes letters to her friend. To whom does Ana write letters? → to her friend (indirect object)
Ana escribe cartas a su amigo. ¿A quién escribe cartas Ana? → a su amigo
Transitive verbs are verbs that require a direct object that receives their action. If they are not followed by a thing/person that receives their action, transitive verbs sound incomplete (for example, the verb abrir (to open) does not make sense if we don’t mention what was opened.)
Past participles are forms of a verb that accompany the auxiliary verb in perfect tenses and can also function as adjectives. In Spanish, regular past participles end in -ado or -ido: cantado (sung), comido (eaten).