The Passive Voice in Spanish

Learn easy with this article about the passive voice in Spanish. Spanish can be difficult, that’s why we are here!

If you study Spanish, we are sure you’ll have heard about the passive voice at least once before. And maybe you’ve even wondered, what on earth does this voice mean? Well, you’ve come to the right place to clear up any doubts once and for all!

The voice is a fundamental characteristic of all speech, intimately related with the verb. It tells us whether a person, animal or thing carries out an action actively (and is therefore an active subject) or whether it receives the action in a passive way (and is therefore a recipient subject). With the former we are talking about sentences in the active voice, while in the latter we are dealing with sentences in the passive voice in Spanish

It’s down to the speaker to choose which voice to use depending on what/who the attention is centred on (subject or direct object). Bearing this in mind, people will voluntarily employ the active or passive voice in Spanish. The difference between these voices is, therefore, pragmatic (in the use of language) instead of semantic, given that the meaning of the sentences doesn’t change.

  1. If the focus is on the person or thing that carries out an action in the sentence, we use the active voice. For example: La policía llevó al ladrón a la cárcel [The police took the thief to prison]

As we can see, in the active voice the speaker focuses on the police, in other words, on the importance of the person who is carrying out the action: the subject of the sentence.

  1. If the focus is on the person or thing receiving the action, we use the passive voice. For example: El ladrón fue llevado a la cárcel [The thief was taken to prison]
passive voice in Spanish

When using the passive voice in Spanish, the importance does not lie in the fact that the police have acted, but that the thief has been taken to prison. That is to say, we are focused on the person (or animal or thing) that receives the action of the verb. Since the focus is on the recipient, the subject of the active voice often does not appear. This can be because:

  • Who did it (the subject) is not important to the speaker: El ladrón fue insultado en su entrada a prisión [The thief was insulted upon entering the prison]
  • We don’t know who carried out the action: Durante su juventud, el ladrón fue atacado y le causó un gran trauma [During his youth, the thief was attacked and this caused him a great deal of trauma]
  • The speaker has already told us who the subject is: El ladrón ha sido arrestado [The thief has been arrested]

There are three types of passive voice in Spanish constructions:

  1. The passive with the verb ser or the true passive: this is formed by the verb ser as an auxiliary plus the participle of the main verb. For example: Los candidatos han sido entrevistados esta mañana [The applicants have been interviewed this morning] This construction is rarely used in Spanish, it is mainly reserved for written texts about science or research. 
  2. The reflexive passive (with SE): this is formed by the pronoun ‘se’ followed by a verb in the third person singular or plural (which agrees with the singular or plural subject). For example: Se buscan expertos en el campo de la medicina [They are looking for experts in the field of medicine] This construction is a lot more commonly used than the previous one.
  3. The passive with the verb estar: this focuses its attention on the result of an action. In other words, by using this type of structure, we don’t place importance on the process but on the result or state that the action of the verb has provoked. This is formed by the verb estar and the participle of the main verb. For example: El nuevo equipo estará compuesto por expertos en el campo de la medicina [The new team will be made up of experts in the field of medicine]

If you want to learn more about these constructions and their uses, take a look at our upcoming webinars and also make sure to have a go at the exercises to master the passive voice in Spanish available on the Entrelenguas virtual platform!

voz pasiva en español

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