Verb Tense: how to say when we mean Part II


Verb forms, Part II: The Passive Voice

A month ago I discussed the passive voice. Passive voice shifts the focus of the sentence from the actor to the recipient of the action.

Two weeks ago, I discussed the formation of the various tenses in English and the convenient formula that will give them to you. For active voice, just as a reminder, our formula:


T (M) (have + -en) (be + -ing) MV


Tense, modal auxiliary, have + the past participle, be + the present participle, and the Main Verb. Everything in parenthesis is optional, allowing us to create all the versions—past, present, and future—that English uses.

The passive includes one more addition to the formula.

A brief refresher:


Active: Tommy hit the ball.

Passive: The ball was hit (by Tommy).


We don’t need the “by Tommy” in the passive sentence to make the sentence grammatically correct. A passive sentence focuses on the recipient of the action (here, the ball) rather than actor.

If you look at enough passive examples, one thing you will notice is that they all include a form of the verb “to be” along with, and before, the main verb. So, when we see the formula for passive voice construction, it add this necessary element.


T (M) (have + -en) (be + -ing) be + -en MV


Here, we add a form of the verb to be plus the past participle form of the main verb.

So for our example above: Past be + -en hit: was hit.

Now to run through all the tenses in active and passive voice


Tense Active Passive
Simple Present He hits the ball. The ball is hit (by him).
Present Progressive He is hitting the ball. The ball is being hit (by him).
Simple Past He hit the ball. The ball was hit (by him).
Past Progressive He was hitting the ball. The ball was being hit (by him).
Present Perfect He has hit the ball. The ball has been hit (by him).
Past Perfect He had hit the ball. The ball had been hit (by him).
Present Perfect Progressive He has been hitting the ball. The ball has been being hit (by him).
Past Perfect Progressive He had been hitting the ball. The ball had been being hit (by him).
Future He will hit the ball. The ball will be hit (by him).
Future Perfect He will have hit the ball. The ball will have been hit (by him).
Future Perfect Progressive He will have been hitting the ball. The ball will have been being hit (by him).


As you can no doubt see, the passive voice always has more words than the active voice in the same tense. And by the time we get to the perfect and progressive forms, we’re talking about a lot of extra words.

So, as a quick piece of editing advice: if you need to cut words from a piece, reconsider out all the instances you’ve used passive voice. Can what you are saying being expressed in active voice? Is it better in active voice? As I pointed out in my passive voice discussion, there are some verbs, like rumor, which can’t be used in the active voice. Sometimes the passive is more appropriate, BUT, when you’re trying to cut words, switching passive to active can be a handy way to do it.

A second quick piece of editing advice: I pointed out above that our tenses get very long in terms of words. So, one thing to ask is “does this need to be progressive?” If you say, for example, “he is hitting the ball,” could it work, and would it be stronger to say “he hits the ball”? (Or “he hit” for “he was hitting” if you’re using past tense).

These are two ways of tightening your writing through grammar choices, rather than content ones.

Next time I’ll talk about shifting the sentence focus in other ways: using the “There Transformation” and “Cleft Sentences.”



1 comment to Verb Tense: how to say when we mean Part II

  • I am exhausted, so please forgive my dorky comment.
    I really like that table. I noticed that if I move my mouse over it, the line I am on lights up! Well, sort of. That’s really cool. It makes it really easy to read!