The Passive in English (One Simple Grammar Hack)

Solved! The passive in English (one simple grammar hack)

In my 12 years teaching English, I’ve noticed there are some grammar points that can drive learners crazy.

But the problem isn’t the grammar. Or the learner.

The problem is not looking at it the right way.

One of these problems is using the passive in English.

The Passive in English

Firstly, what’s the passive? Here’s a quick reminder (with cats).

In English, we can express an action in two different ways: active and passive.


The cat chased the rat.

…and passive:

The cat was chased by the rat.

Yes, there are lots of different passive forms. And yes, they all look different. It depends on which tense you’re using.

But they’re all really just one rule.

That rule is: just add “be.”

Just add "be."

The tricky part of the passive is remembering to do that. If you can use “be” in any tense, then you can basically use the passive in any tense.

OK. Seems simple, but how does it work in practice?

Try the adjective test.

What’s an adjective? Click here for some examples.


You can use adjectives to help you make passive sentences.

Here, let me show you how. But first, let’s look at some sentences with adjectives.

Some sentences with adjectives

Greg the giraffe.

Greg the giraffe is tall.present
Greg the giraffe was smaller. past
Greg the giraffe will be old.modal: will
Greg the giraffe can be helpful.
modal: can
Greg the giraffe has been sick.
present perfect
Greg the giraffe is being unhelpful.present continuous

OK — except for the slightly tricky continuous at the end there, this is kind of easy, right? That’s because we just need to use “be.”

The Passive

Now, to form the passive, just replace the adjectives with verb 3.

What’s verb 3? Click here for some examples.

verb 1verb 2verb 3

I’m going to choose the verb “ride” (verb 3 is “ridden”).

Greg the giraffe is ridden in a wheelbarrow.

Greg the giraffe is ridden everywhere every day.present
Greg the giraffe was ridden to the pub yesterday. past
Greg the giraffe will be ridden home this afternoon.modal: will
Greg the giraffe can be ridden by Michael.
modal: can
Greg the giraffe has been ridden to the hospital.
present perfect
Greg the giraffe is being ridden to the pool now.present continuous

Yes , that’s right. Verb 3 in the passive works just like an adjective.

4 thoughts on “The Passive in English (One Simple Grammar Hack)

  1. Dear Gabriel,
    Thanks for your great post. However, I have a question:
    To me, “The giraffe was ridden”, sounds unnatural for the pictured situation. I would say “The giraffe was given a ride”.
    However, I would definitely say, “The donkey is ridden by the owner almost every day.”
    Why is it so?

    1. Hi Esther,

      Yeah — I think I’d agree with you and in retrospect, it might’ve been a bit more natural if I’d chosen a different verb (or just gone for “given a ride”).

      This is one of our early posts and I guess at the time I was more concerned about making sure the grammar was clear.

      Thanks for commenting.

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