Whilst learning about and using verbs here on Spectrum Monkey we’ve been making a rather large grammatical assumption. That is to say: we have been assuming an active voice.
In both English and Spanish, the default mode of speech uses the active voice. However, we do have another mode of speech we can employ, known as the passive voice.
Let’s quickly explain what the active and passive voices are so we can begin to understand why we might want to employ a different mode of speech.
A sentence is deemed to be in an “active” voice if the subject of the sentence is performing the action. Whereas we consider the construction to be in a “passive” voice if the subject receives the action.
Active: “David comió la tortilla” (David ate the tortilla)
Passive: “La tortilla fue comido por David” (The tortilla was eaten by David)
In these examples David is known as the agent
as he is the active subject.
There are a number of reasons why we might want to use the passive voice. These include, shifting the focus away from the person doing the action (the agent) toward the action itself. For example, there are times when the action itself is the most important fact, not necessarily who is performing it. We might only care whether there is any tortilla left, not who ate it.
Furthermore, we might not even know who the agent is that performed the action.
“La tortilla fue comido” (The tortilla was eaten) Forming the Passive voice
We form passive voice constructions in Spanish by combining the verb ser (to be)
with a past participle. We may also append an optional agent to the end of the construction with the use of por: Ser + past participle (+ por + agent)
As ever, one of the best ways to explain this is to see some examples side by side. Therefore, let’s see some active constructions rephrased into the passive voice, so we can see how we use ser in combination with a past participle:
|Active ||Meaning ||Passive ||Meaning |
|“David está leyendo un libro” ||David is reading a book ||“Un libro está siendo leído por David” ||A book is being read by David |
|“María envió las flores” ||María sent the flowers ||“Las flores fueron enviadas por María” ||The flowers were sent by María |
|“Él los compra” ||He buys them ||“Ellos son comprados por él” ||They are bought by him |
|“Ella los ha comprado” ||She has bought them ||“Ellos han sido comprados por ella” ||They have been bought by her |
|“David probablemente cometerá muchos errores” ||David will probably make many mistakes ||“Probablemente muchos errores serán cometidos por David” ||Probably many mistakes will be made by David |
The very observant amongst you will have noticed that the past participle of the passive construction must agree in both gender and plurality with the subject of the verb ser
in the same way an adjective does. Using the Passive voice
The passive voice is not used in Spanish as much as in English. Having said this, is does still crop up and it always serves us well to be able to spot these types of construction.
Yet, wherever possible in Spanish, we tend to favour an active construction or seek an alternative construction altogether in an attempt to avoid the passive voice.
One such alternative to a true passive voice
is to use what is called a passive se. The Passive se Passive se
constructions are commonly used in Spanish instead of using a true passive voice. Often in advertisements or public announcements, where the action is important but not necessarily who is performing the action.
We create a passive se construction as follows: se + third person verb (singular or plural) + noun (singular or plural)
Let’s see some common examples:
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“Se vende sellos” ||Stamps sold here |
|“Se busca vivo o muerto” ||Wanted: dead or alive |
|“Se compran artículos viejos y nuevos” ||Bought: items old and new |
|“Se hablan español aquí” ||Spanish is spoken here |
Strictly speaking, the passive se
is not a true passive voice,
but as it often translates into English as a passive voice, we can consider these constructions to serve the same purpose. This is especially useful when dealing with non-personal subjects. Conclusion | En conclusión
Even though the true passive voice is not used often in Spanish, there are times when you may come across it. Certainly though, passive se constructions are rife, especially in informative situations.
Nonetheless, being able convert any active construction into a passive one is excellent practice, as it forces us to really think about how a sentence is formed. It also forces us to think differently, and this is no bad thing. All too often we learn things just one way, and after a while we stop thinking.
Being able to turn a construction completely on its head whilst retaining its meaning and shifting the focus away from the agent may be considered quite an advanced concept. Yet when we follow the relatively simple rule of combining ser
with a past particle that agrees with the subject, we soon realise we are already more than capable.