Passive Voice in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

The passive voice (pasiva) emphasises an action or a condition. Who or what caused the action or condition is unimportant, unknown, or assumed to be general knowledge. Spanish has two ways of expressing passive sentences: the passive voice and the passive “se” (pasiva refleja) both of which are translated using the passive voice in English grammar.

Learn how to conjugate the passive voice in Spanish grammar and get tips on when to use it. In the exercises, you can test your knowledge.

Example

Un hombre ha sido atropellado por un coche. Ya se ha llamado a una ambulancia.

El herido es conducido al hospital.

Los testimonios han sido recogidos por la policía. La familia del herido será informada.

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Active vs. Passive

The active voice is used to emphasise who/what is carrying out the action.

Example:
La ambulancia conduce al herido al hospital.The ambulance is bringing the injured man to the hospital.

The passive voice is used to emphasise the action itself. Who/what is carrying out the action is often left out in passive sentences.

Example:
El herido es conducido (por la ambulancia) al hospital.The injured man is brought (by the ambulance) to the hospital.

Usage

In Spanish, the passive voice is reserved for certain contexts, for instance in journalism or very formal written language. In order to sound natural in everyday communication, use the active voice or the passive “se” (pasiva refleja).

Some important features of the passive voice are:

  • it emphasises an action and who/what has been affected by it;
    Example:
    Un hombre ha sido atropellado.A man has been hit by a car.
  • the passive agent (i.e. the subject of the active sentence) is either not mentioned at all, or comes at the end of the passive sentence and is introduced by the preposition por.
    Example:
    El herido es conducido al hospital por la ambulancia.The injured man is taken to hospital by an ambulance.
  • we can use the passive voice in any Spanish tense, however, it is frequently used in the past and future tense.
    Example:
    Un hombre ha sido atropellado.
    La familia del herido será informada.The family of the injured man will be informed.

Construction of Passive Voice

Sentences in the passive voice are formed in the following way:

  • The object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence.
    Example:
    La ambulancia conduce al herido al hospital. (object – active voice)The ambulance is taking the injured person to the hospital.
    El herido es conducido al hospital por la ambulancia. (subject – passive voice)The injured person is being taken to the hospital by the ambulance.
  • We use the auxiliary verb ser and the participle of the main verb in the active sentence. The verb ser can be conjugated in any tense. The participle agrees with the passive subject in gender and number.
    Example:
    El herido es conducido al hospital. (tercera persona en masculino singular)The injured person is taken to the hospital.
    Los testimonios son recogidos. (tercera persona en masculino plural)The statements are/are being collected.
  • The subject of the active sentence become the passive agent. It comes at the end of the sentence and is introduced by the preposition por. The passive agent can be omitted.
    Example:
    La policía recoge los testimonios. (sujeto – pasiva)The police are collecting the statements.
    Los testimonios son recogidos por la policía. (complemento agente – pasiva)The statements are being collected by the police.

The following table provides an overview of the sentence structure in the active and passive voice.

subject verb object complement agent
active La ambulancia conduce al herido al hospital.
passive El herido es conducido al hospital por la ambulancia.

Overview of Spanish Tenses in the Active and Passive Voice

The table below provides an overview of present, past and future tenses in passive and active voice.

Active Tense Passive
La policía recoge los testimonios.The police collect the statements. present Los testimonios son recogidos.The statements are/are being collected.
La policía recogía los testimonios.The police were collecting the statements. imperfect Los testimonios eran recogidos.The statements were/were being collected.
La policía recogió los testimonios.The police collected the statements. preterite Los testimonios fueron recogidos.The statements were collected.
La policía ha recogido los testimonios.The police have collected the statements. perfect Los testimonios han sido recogidos.The statements have been collected.
La policía había recogido los testimonios.The police had collected the statements. past perfect Los testimonios habían sido recogidos.The statements had been collected.
La policía recogerá los testimonios.The police will collect the statements. future Los testimonios serán recogidos.The statements will be collected.
La policía habrá recogido los testimonios.The police will have collected the statements. future perfect Los testimonios habrán sido recogidos.The statements will have been collected.
La policía recogería los testimonios.The police would collect the statements. conditional Los testimonios serían recogidos.The statements would be collected.
La policía habría recogido los testimonios.The police would have collected the statements. conditional perfect Los testimonios habrían sido recogidos.The statements would have been collected.

Passive “se” in Spanish grammar

Usage

Spanish speakers usually avoid the passive voice in spoken language. Instead, they use the passive “se” (pasiva refleja) which has the same communicative effect but a much simpler structure. Both the passive “se” and the passive voice are translated using the passive voice in English.

Example:
Los testimonios han sido recogidos.The statements have been collected.
passive voice → reserved for journalism and formal written texts
Se han recogido los testimonios.The statements have been collected.
passive “se” → preferred in everyday spoken Spanish

Construction

The keys points for the correct formation of the passive “se” are listed below:

  • The subject of the passive construction cannot be a person.
  • The pronoun se is followed by the verb in 3rd person singular or plural, depending on the subject.
  • The passive “se” can be used in all tenses in indicative and subjunctive.
  • In compound tenses, the participle is invariable which means it never changes to agree with the subject.
  • The agent of the passive “se” is never mentioned.
Example:
La policía ha recogido los testimonios. (active)The police have collected the statements.
Los testimonios han sido recogidos por la policía. (passive)The statements have been collected by the police.
Se ha recogido el testimonio. (pasiva refleja)The statement has been collected.
Se han recogido los testimonios. (pasiva refleja)The statements have been collected.

Normally the subject of the passive“se” goes after the verb, but it can also go before the verb.

Example:
Se han recogido los testimonios.
Los testimonios se han recogido.

Passive “se” vs. impersonal “se”

When the direct object of a verb in the active voice is a person, it must be introduced by the preposition a. In this case, the sentence can be written using the passive voice or the impersonal “se” but not the passive “se”. This is because the preposition makes it impossible for this object to function as the subject of a passive "se” construction. The impersonal “se” refers to an undefined agent, therefore, the verb is always in the 3rd person singular.

Example:
La policía ha contactado a los testigos. → active voice
Los testigos han sido contactados. → passive voice
Se ha contactado a los testigos. (not: Se han contactado a los testigos) → impersonal “se”

For more information about the impersonal “se” and other types of impersonal sentences, see impersonal sentences.