Let's talk about the passive voice in Spanish!
Let's start by understanding the concept of voz (voice) in a sentence- in English or Spanish. This refers to the relationship between a sentence's subject and verb. A sentence's voice can be active or passive. But what's the difference?
In the active voice, the subject performs a verb's action onto an object and is thus considered the sentence's actor or agent (the person or thing that carries out the action). Let's see some examples:
Pedro come galletas.
"Pedro come galletas" [Pedro eats cookies].Play Caption
In this caption, Pedro is the subject/agent who executes the action of "eating" the object (the cookies).
eh... pintábamos muchísimos fondos oscuros
um... we painted a ton of dark backgrounds
Caption 99, María Marí Su pasión por su arte - Part 1Play Caption
In this example, "we" is the subject/agent who carried out the action of "painting" the object, "a ton of dark backgrounds."
Gabriel García Márquez escribió muchos libros.
Gabriel García Márquez wrote a lot of books.Play Caption
And finally, here, Gabriel García Márquez is the subject, and agent, who performed the action of "writing" the object (a lot of books).
The Passive Voice
In the passive voice, on the other hand, what was previously the object in the active voice actually becomes the subject, but, this time, receives the action of the verb. At the same time, the previous subject becomes a "passive agent" who may or may not be mentioned at the end of the sentence. That said, before finding out how to convey sentences in the passive voice in Spanish, let's convert our previous English examples of the active voice to the passive voice:
Active: Pedro eats cookies
Passive: Cookies are eaten by Pedro
um... we painted a ton of dark backgrounds
um... a ton of dark backgrounds were painted by us
Active: Gabriel García Márquez wrote a lot of books.
Passive: A lot of books were written by Gabriel García Márquez.
Now that we have a better concept of the passive voice, how do we express it in Spanish? Let's learn two different formulas for doing so.
In this first formula, the verb ser (to be) is conjugated in accordance with the subject of the sentence and followed by a past participle (you may wish to consult this lesson that covers conjugating the past participle). In this construction, the participle (the equivalent of English words like "spoken," "eaten," "gone," etc.) must agree with the subject in terms of number and gender. Subsequently, por plus an agent may be optionally added to explain who or what completed the action. Let's take a look at some examples of this formula in Spanish:
y es escrito por mí personalmente.
and is personally written by me.
Caption 46, Los Tiempos de Pablo Escobar Capítulo 1 - Part 7Play Caption
En el Siglo dieciocho, las costas de San José en Almería eran asaltadas frecuentemente por piratas
In the eighteenth century, the coasts of San José in Almería were assaulted frequently by pirates
Captions 32-33, Club de las ideas Batería de breves - Part 1Play Caption
Las tarjetas fueron usadas
The cards were usedPlay Caption
Note that in accordance with las tarjetas, the third person plural of ser, fueron, is used along with the feminine plural participle usadas. However, in contrast to the other two examples where por is used to identify the person or people who carried out the action, here, the agent is unknown and thus unmentioned. Let's move on to our second formula.
This construction is formed with se and a verb in third person singular or plural, depending upon whether what is being spoken about (the subject) is singular or plural. Let's see a few examples:
Este vino se hace con una de las uvas más populares
This wine is made with one of the most popular grapes
Caption 21, Amaya Cata de vinosPlay Caption
las corridas se celebraban en la Plaza Mayor.
bullfights were held in the Plaza Mayor.
Caption 5, El Trip MadridPlay Caption
"Garr", no entiendo para qué se hicieron esos uniformes.
Garr, I don't understand why those uniforms were made.
Caption 53, Club 10 Capítulo 1 - Part 2Play Caption
In the first caption, the verb hacer is conjugated in the third person singular to agree with el vino, while celebrar and hacer in the second and third examples are plural in agreement with las corridas and los uniformes. Notice that there is no mention of the entity who performed the action in any of these sentences since this second formula rarely mentions the action's agent.
The passive voice is more commonly encountered in the media or literature or when the agent that carried out the action is unknown or considered less relevant. It can only be used with transitive verbs, or verbs that are capable of transmitting some action onto a direct object. In terms of tenses, you may have noticed that our examples have included the present, imperfect, and preterite. While the passive voice formulas contain particular grammatical specifications, there is no mention of any of the specific Spanish verb tenses because active Spanish sentences in any verb tense can be converted to the passive voice. With this in mind, let's conclude this lesson with a present perfect tense example of the verb descubrir (to discover) in the active as well as both formats of the passive voice:
Científicos han descubierto que cuando un abrazo dura más de veinte segundos se produce un efecto terapéutico
Scientists have discovered that when a hug lasts more than twenty seconds, a therapeutic effect is produced
Captions 5-7, Aprendiendo con Silvia El abrazoPlay Caption
Ya que ellos, pues, han sido descubiertos en Inglaterra
Since they, well, have been discovered in England
Caption 40, Hugo Rodríguez Duendes artesanalesPlay Caption
porque se han descubierto muchas virtudes
because many virtues have been discovered
Caption 9, Cómetelo Crema de brócoli - Part 1Play Caption
That's all for today. For more information on the passive voice in Spanish, check out this four-part video series on La voz pasiva as well as this lesson on the passive vs. impersonal se constructions. And don't forget to leave us your suggestions and comments.