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Passive Voice

En España, hoy es martes el 25 de julio de 2017.

“True” Passive with Ser

The passive voice is a structure more commonly used in Spanish than in English (in fact, your English teachers may frequently admonish you to avoid the passive voice, but it’s very common in written Spanish). In this structure, unlike the “active” voice, the subject of the main verb of the sentence is not the ‘doer’ of the action of the verb, but rather, the ‘receiver’ of the action.

Examples:

  • The house was painted by my brother last summer.
  • La casa fue pintada por mi hermano el verano pasado.

The above examples are called the true passive in that the agent (ie. the ‘doer’ of the action) is expressed—in this case the brother. The formula for the true passive, then, is always as follows:

Subject (receiver) + Ser + Perfect participle in adjectival agreement + Por + Agent (doer).

Example:

  • El presidente fue matado por los revolucionarios.

Passive Voice with “SE”

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2015-03-07 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

Sometimes the agent is not expressed, particularly in spoken Spanish, and in that case, Spanish uses a different construction with ‘Se’. This structure may at first appear to be the same as the reflexive, and indeed they look very similar, but the meaning is quite distinct. With a reflexive verb, there is clearly an object of the verb—ie., the verb is transitive. The object of the verb just also happens to be the subject of the verb as well.

In the case of the passive voice with se, the verbs in question will always be transitive verbs (ie., they do take an object), and they will always be in the third person, singular or plural.

This structure can also be confused with the [Impersonal se][#impse], discussed below, but with the impersonal se, the verb is always intransitive.

Examples:

  • Se pintaron las casas. (The houses were painted. pintar is transitive— to paint what?)
  • Se habla español aquí. (Spanish is spoken here. hablar is transitive— to speak what?)
  • Se destruyó la universidad. (The university was destroyed. destruir is transitive— to destroy what?)
  • Se tomaron los exámenes ayer. (The exams were taken yesterday. tomar is transitive— to take what?)

In the above examples, the agents—the person or thing doing the action—are not expressed. You should also note that the receivers or the action are INanimate (ie., the receiver is not a person or an animal), and the verb agrees in number with the number of the receiver.

If the receiver of the action is animate (ie., a person or animal), the verb will ALWAYS be third person singular REGARDLESS of the number of the receiver, and the sentence will include the personal a to mark the direct object.

Examples:

  • Se casó a los novios. (The lovers were married.)
  • Se mató a los senadores. (The senators were killed.)
  • Se ayuda a los estudiantes. (The students are helped.)

In the above examples, the receivers of the action are all animate, the verbs are third person singular, and the personal a is placed before the receiver to mark it as the recipient of the action. Without the personal a, it would be difficult to distinguish between a regular reflexive statement (eg., “The lovers married each other”, as opposed to “The lovers were married”)

Impersonal se

The Impersonal se appears to be very similar to the passive with se, and so we present it here. If the verb is intransitive (ie., it is a verb that does not take a direct object, like, to live, to go out, to work, to die), the verb will always be in the third person singular. In this particular usage, it is often translated into English as One lives…, One exits…, One works…, and can often even be expressed in Spanish as *Uno vive…, Uno trabaja…, Uno sale…, etc.

Examples:

  • Se vive bien en Europa. (One lives well in Europe.)
  • Se sale por detrás (One leaves through the rear.)
  • Se trabaja mucho en los Estados Unidos (One works a lot in the United States.)

Formula for usage

  1. Is agent expressed? → True passive
    • Subject (receiver) + “Ser” + Perfect participle in adjectival agreement + “por” + Agent (doer).
  2. Agent not expressed and the verb is transitive → Passive with se
    1. Is receiver animate?
      • “Se” + 3rd singular + “a” + receiver(s)
    2. Is receiver inanimate?
      • Singular? → “Se” + 3rd sing. + receiver.
      • Plural? → “Se” + 3rd plural + receivers.
  3. Agent not expressed and the verb is intransitive (or objectless transitive verb)→ Impersonal se
    • “Se” + 3rd sing.

And here are some more examples of the use of the passive voice:


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