Passive I in Spanish
Recall from your English knowledge that if a subject performs an action, the verb is active and if the subject receives the action, the verb is passive. The passive voice is used generally if the subject is not that important or unknown. For example, “I was punished” is a passive formulation. It is not clear who punished me. It is not me who performed this action; I am affected by the result. In an active sentence there are three elements, subject, object and the verb. But, in passive sentences there are usually two elements; the subject and the verb. In Spanish, there are two ways to express passive construction. You may use, as in English, to be verb and the past participle. This topic is the subject of the present lesson.
However, we’d like to add that the using passive sentences are not as common as it is in English. Hence, you should avoid overusing the passive voice in Spanish. Instead of the passive voice, the formulations with the reflexive substitute or the use of impersonal “se”are more common in Spanish. We will cover this second way is what we will cover exactly in the next lesson.
The passive voice is formed by to be verb ser which is followed by the past participle. Note that the past participle needs to agree with the number and the gender. Also note that ser can be in any tense in the passive formulation.
One of the mistakes you can make initially related to this topic is probably to use the singular, masculine form of the past participle. Because the verb compound tenses conjugations are carried out in that way. On the other hand, in the passive voice, the past participle is required to agree with the number and the gender of the subject pronouns. Therefore, the past participle of for example “castigar” will look like this
castigado (masculine, singular)
castigada (feminine, singular)
castigados (masculine, plural)
castigadas (feminine, plural)
Thus, as in the case of its use as adjective, the past participle is to be chosen from four possibilities depending on the number and the gender.
Let us say “I am punished” for all subject pronouns:
Note that ser is conjugated in accordance with the subject which precedes it.
The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive verb form.
When an agent needs to be included, the preposition por is used:
Fue castigado por mi madre (I was punished by my mother)
Mostly, the preterit of ser is used in the past formulations.
La casa fue construida por Carlos The house was built by Carlos
Estos libros fueron escritos por mi autor favorito. These books were written by my favorite author
The past participle of the passive sentence becomes the main verb of the active sentence:
Carlos construyó la casa Carlos built the house
Although in theory, the passive voice can be used in any tense, as you have seen in the example sentences, it usually appears in the preterit.
If the passive subject is important and the agent is not mentioned, the passive reflexive formulations can be used, which is the subject of the next lesson. It is a good idea to avoid the passive voice it where possible as it is not as common as in English.
We covered hay que in an earlier lesson and learned that it is used to express obligations. We’d like to note here that the sentences formed with hay que which can be seen as passive constructions as well:
hay que estudiar mucho one must study a lot
Hay que pagar la renta one must pay the rent
Hay que tomar un taxi one must take a taxi