What is known by kids about passives?

Derided by Word’s grammar check, much loved by politicians, acquired late by children and processed slower than the alternative even by adults – the passive voice was put in the spotlight by the 2014 National Curriculum reforms and is considered a source of strife by primary teachers up and down England and Wales. But what is known by kids, and for that matter adults, about the passive voice?*

Hold on a second. What is “voice”?

Voice is a grammatical tool for marking the relationship between the verb and what we call ‘arguments’, phrases that the verb needs to be able to fully express its meaning. Here are a few examples of verbs and their arguments:

(1) I ran. (I = argument, ran = verb)
(2) I ate the cake. (I, the cake = arguments, ate = verb)
(3) I gave the present to my friend. (I, the present, to my friend = arguments, gave = verb)

All of the examples in (1-3) are in the active voice. This means that the agent of the verb – the ‘doer’, in all these cases – is the subject of the sentence.

What’s a subject?

If we’re totally honest, no-one has a good definition, and it’s not clear if ‘subject’ is a useful concept for all human languages anyway. But for our purposes, the subject is the argument that precedes the verb in active, declarative sentences in English (those that tend to express statements). If a subject is a pronoun, it looks like “I, he, she, they, we” rather than “me, him, her, them, us”.**

So what is the passive voice?

In English grammar, there’s an option to make other arguments, not just agents, the subject of the sentence (assuming there are other arguments to choose from!). This is called the passive voice, which you can see in (4-6), corresponding to (2-3):

(4) The cake was eaten by me.
(5) The present was given to my friend by me.
(6) My friend was given the present by me.***

In (4) and (5), the ‘theme’ or ‘patient’ arguments are made into the subject of the sentence (preceding the verb), and the agent argument, I is taken away and tagged on to the sentence as part of the phrase by me.**** In (6), the ‘recipient’ argument becomes the subject, and again, subject I has to make way.

This creates an alternation. The exact same event – for example, my eating a cake – can be expressed in two different ways grammatically. And you’ll notice that the passive voice has more grammatical machinery in it than the active voice does. So while I’m thinking about cake, let’s whip up a recipe for making the passive voice!

A recipe for the passive voice

1 active sentence (with at least two arguments)
1 auxiliary verb be
1 passive participle ending -ed
Optional: 1 preposition by


  1. Take your active sentence, e.g. Molly bakes a cake, and identify the arguments. Once you’ve found the agent, here Molly, chop it off and put it to one side for later.
  2. Now find the theme, here the cake. Chop that off too, and stick it onto the front of the sentence to make the cake bakes.***** Now, the cake is the subject of your sentence.
  3. Take your auxiliary verb be and mould it into the same tense as in your original sentence. Our original sentence was in present tense, so we need a form like am, are, is. We pick the one that matches the new subject the cake, so we choose is.
  4. Pop your auxiliary is in between the new subject and the verb, to make the cake is bakes. Don’t worry if this looks a bit funny – we haven’t finished yet!
  5. Chop any tense off your main verb bakes. Tense is now marked by your auxiliary is, so you don’t need it twice! Here, we chop off -s to make bake, and our whole sentence looks like the cake is bake.
  6. Take your passive participle ending -ed and pop it onto the end of your main verb bake. Now you should have the cake is baked.

Hooray! You can stop at this point and you have a beautiful passive sentence, known as a “short” passive. But you can add in your optional extras in another step…

7. Take your preposition by, and the agent that you put to the side earlier, Molly. Stick these two together and pop them on the end of your short passive to make a long one: the cake was baked by Molly.

Other cooking notes

You may have noticed that the recipe doesn’t work so neatly for irregular verbs like ‘eat’. In this case, you need to put on irregular participle ending ‘-en’, to take you from Molly eats the cake to The cake is eaten by Molly. But everything else stays the same. For other irregular verbs, the form might be a bit different, like bought for buy.

You’ve got another option if you’re a Tyneside English speaker too. On Tyneside, you don’t have to use the participle form of a verb in the passive – you can just use the past tense (also known as the preterite) form. So Tyneside English speakers might say The cake is ate by Molly.****** See if your local dialect can also spice up the passive just like Tyneside English!

So you mentioned that kids acquire the passive late…

Indeed I did, and considering all the grammatical machinery laid out above, you can start to see why children don’t correctly understand some English passives until the age of 6.

But there are other considerations that come into play too. Passive sentences are much less frequent in English speech and writing than active sentences, and are vastly less frequent in child-directed speech – as few as 0.5% of verbs in child directed speech are used in the passive voice. This means that there’s a massive bias for having the agent as the subject of the sentence in English, because that’s where children tend to hear it. (Interestingly there’s also a general bias for subjects-before-objects in basic word orders around the world, where again, agents tend to be subjects. Maybe it’s an ingrained human bias, and not just about frequency.)

However, work by my superb colleague Dr Emma Nguyen has shown that it’s not just about frequency of passives in the input – the verb also plays a big role in acquiring the passive. She showed that children understand earlier passives that contain certain verbs – namely those that express actions that are intentional and where the agent has a physical effect on the theme, like wash and fix. Passives using these verbs can be understood around the age of 3.

In contrast, children are latest to acquire the passive with verbs that express states of being where the agent experiences a feeling for the theme, like love and believe. Adult-like understanding of these verbs only develops around age 6. Emma suggests that children learn about the different types of events that verbs can express, then use that knowledge, along with their syntactic knowledge, to gradually expand their understanding of the passive voice.

I’m a teacher and I’m supposed to teach the passive voice to children aged around 9…

So, that is kind of rough on you (not to mention them) given that they’ve only had a couple of years of successfully interpreting passive sentences at this point. You can tell that the 2014 curriculum reformers didn’t consult acquisitionists!

What I’d advise here is making sure that your students know first all the key concepts that feed into the passive voice, e.g. auxiliary verbs, concepts of agent and theme, subject and object, and about verb endings, because as the recipe shows, you can’t really talk about constructing the passives without being able to identify your ingredients.

I’m also a big advocate for making grammar learning as much like a scientific adventure as possible. Children love spotting examples, matching patterns, using magnifying glasses and chopping things into pieces. I think you can do all of these things with language too, both “in the wild” and in controlled ways in the classroom.

I also think that grammar teaching is much more fun and engaging when variation is taken into account – that’s to say how structures look and sound different in different dialects and in different languages (see the Tyneside English cooking note). It’s true that taking non-standard English into account takes a lot of courage and confidence from you as a teacher, but if you can do it, there’s a 2-fer-1 to be had – interesting takes on a theme and validation of other ways of speaking that will make your students feel heard.

If you want a bit more support too, I’m going to put in a plug for a fabulous free resource from linguist colleagues at UCL – the Englicious site. Friendly explainers for non-linguists, lesson resources, and CPD days, it’s a great resource to have in the back pocket.


*If you spotted my little metalinguistic joke in the title and first paragraph…I’m sorry. I could not be helped by myself.

**Why no “it, you, that”? Because they look the same whether they are subjects or objects, and so wouldn’t make my point very clear here! If you want to know more about why pronouns look different in subject and object position, read up on grammatical case.

***Not all dialects of English allow examples like (6), so you might not find this grammatical. But my fabulously flexible North West England dialect allows it, so I’m including it, and you can’t make me do otherwise 😉

****Notice that “I” becomes “me” after ‘by’ because it’s not the subject any more. It’s all about case again!

***** “The cake bakes” isn’t such a bad sentence, right? Especially if you add an adverb like easily or quickly. This is known as middle voice, but we’ll save that for another day.

****** This preterite-for-participle switch is pretty common in Tyneside English – my excellent sociolinguist colleague Dr Dan Duncan has written about it, and also looked at the (less common) opposite, where the participle can sometimes be used for the past tense, e.g. in I seen her this morning (rather than I saw her). Notice that the preterite and participle forms are the same for regular verbs (I baked the cake and The cake was baked by me). Thanks also to the lovely Tynesider Beth Beveridge who brought the Tyneside variant to my attention in the first place!

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