A contrastive analysis of passive voice in english and vietnamese

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A contrastive analysis of Passive Voice

in English and Vietnamese

Student: Nguyễn Thị Diễm Quỳnh

Class: 4A08

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

University of Pedagogy


Passive voice is one of the most difficult grammar points that make students confused so much about both its function and its equivalent meaning when they translate a passive sentence into an active one in Vietnamese. For example:

I was born in Ho Chi Minh city” (Passive) and “Tôi sinh ra ở thành phố Hồ Chí Minh” (Active)

As we can see, the English sentence above is written in passive form while the Vietnamese one is in active but they have the same meaning. It is not always that a passive sentence in English will be translated into a passive one in Vietnamese. I am sure that many students who learn English as a second language can hardly know when to use a passive form correctly.

Or “The two house are built near one another” and “Hai cái nhà này cất gần nhau”.

From the point of view of English grammar, one might ask: How can a house be built by itself? There must be someone to build the house. But in Vietnamese, they are complete sentences. There is no difference in meaning between the two sentences although the word order between the two is different. One reason is that the object of the verb can be topicalised, often resulting in a sentence translated with an English passive.

In this study, I will discuss the similarities and differences in the use of passive sentences in English and Vietnamese. Similarities between the two languages are that passive voice is used to emphasize the action, not the causes of the action. However, in English we tend to use more passive sentences while people prefer to use more active form in Vietnamese.

To help Vietnamese students study Passive voice in English more easily, this essay will give you a contrastive analysis of passive voice in English and Vietnamese in four main parts. The first part will give you an overview about passive voice in English and Vietnamese through the definition. After that, we will explore some differences and similarities of passive voice in English and Vietnamese by means of passive marking, typology, the relation between active and passive voice and the popularity of passive voice.

Because I am going to be a teacher in the future, I would like to mention some implications that we can apply in teaching as a discussion part. And finally will be a brief conclusion of what I have done in this essay.


“Voice refers to whether the subject of a sentence is on the giving or receiving end of the action”. (Stilman, 2010)

In sentences written in the active voice, the subject is the doer:

Bob caught the Frisbee in his teeth (subject is Bob).

In sentences written in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon:

The Frisbee was caught in Bob's teeth (subject is the Frisbee).

“In a passive construction, the person or object that is actually performing the action may be named in the sentence, but is not the focus of it.” (Stillman, 2010)

A general rule is to use the passive voice only when the doer or agent in your sentence (the person or thing acting) is unknown or is unimportant or when you want to connect the topics of the two clauses.

  • Ex: The pandas are rare. Two of them will be returned to the wild.

He had a lot people working for him, maybe sixty, and most of them liked him most of the time. Three of the will be seriously considered for his job.


  1. When to use Passive voice.

There are some situations in which the passive voice is more effective than the active voice:

  • Millions of people have read “Gone with the wind”.

  • Gone with the wind” has been read by millions of people.

If we want to focus on the number of people who have read "Gone with the wind", we use active voice. If we want to focus on the novel "Gone with the wind", we use passive voice. The question is to ask yourself what you want to emphasis. When the receiver of the action is more important than the performer, use the passive voice.

  • When we do not know who the performer of the action is, the performer will be dropped from the sentence.

  • Her car has been stolen (by someone) (We do not know who stole her car)

  • When we want to avoid responsibility: when the active voice seems indiscreet, we can use passive voice to avoid assigning responsibility for the action.

  • You made this machine out of order.

  • This machine was made out of order.

  • To maintain a consistent point of view or sequence of subjects.

  • Our auditors have reviewed our accounting practices and found them to be adequate. We should convey this to our investors. The capital they provide allows us to operate.

  • Our accounting practices have been reviewed and found to be adequate. These findings should be conveyed to our investors, who provide us with operating capital.

  1. Structure of Passive voice.

To form the passive voice, use a form of be + past participle.

  • Here is the table of verbs in Passive voice in terms of 12 tenses.





Simple present

am/ is/ are + P.P

This cake is made by my mother.

Present continuous

am/ is/ are + being + P.P

This cake is being made by my mother.

Simple past

was/ were + P.P

This cake was made by my mother.

Past continuous

was/ were + being + P.P

This cake was being made by my mother.

Present perfect

has/ have + been + P.P

This cake has been made by my mother.

Perfect continuous

has/ have + been+ being + P.P

This cake has been being made by my mother.

Past perfect

had + been + P.P

This cake had been made by my mother.

Past perfect continuous

had + been+ being + P.P

This cake had been being made by my mother.

Simple future

will + be + P.P

This cake will be made by my mother.

Future continuous

will + be + being + P.P

This cake will be being made by my mother.

Future perfect

will + have been + P.P

This cake will have been made by my mother.

Future perfect continuous

Will + have been being + P.P

This cake will have been being made by my mother.

  • Passive voice with a modal auxiliary, we use the modal + be + past participle.

Present: I can be misunderstood.

Future: I could be misunderstood.

Past: I could have been misunderstood.

  • Passive voice with causative forms: HAVE, GET

Active: S+ have/ get + O (person) + bare infinitive + O

Passive: S + have/ get + O (thing) + P.P (+by +O [person])

  • For example:

I get her to make some coffee.

I get some coffee made.

  • Passive voice with verbs of perception: SEE, WATCH, HEAR….

Active: S + V+ O + bare infinitive/ V-ing…

Passive: S + be + P.P + to infinitive/ V-ing…

  • For example:

They saw her come in.

She was seen to come in.

  • Passive voice with verbs of opinion: SAY, THINK, BELIEVE, REPORT, RUMOR…

Active: S + V + (that) + clause (S2 + V2 + O2…)

Passive: S2 + be + P.P + to-infinitive…..

+ to have + P.P…..

  • For example:

  • People say that he is a famous doctor.

It is said that he is a famous doctor.

→ He is said to be a famous doctor.

  • They thought that Mary had gone away.

It was thought that Mary had gone away.

→ Mary was thought to have gone away.

  • Passive voice in imperative sentence.

Active: V + O + Adjunct

Passive: Let + O + be + P.P + Adjunct.

  • For example:

  • He let me go out.

→ I was let to go.

→ I was allowed to go out.

  • Remember to use the passive voice only with verbs that are transitive in English (that is, they can be followed by a direct object). Intransitive verbs such as happen, occur, and try (to) are not used in the passive voice.

  • The ceremony was happened yesterday.

  • Morality is an issue that was tried to explain by many philosophers.


In contrast with English, Vietnamese is an austral and Asiatic language, its basic grammar is the word order. Vietnamese words do not change form, even the verbs. So we cannot base on the form of the verb or grammar to determine whether a sentence is active or passive. We also cannot base on grammar structure because there are some cases in which the structure of an active sentence cannot be recognized.

According to Palmer (1994), passive constructions do not exist, and passive meanings are expressed through verbs of experiencing and becoming, as well as subject or topic markers. However, Nguyen (1987) pointed out that the passive voice in Vietnamese can be also expressed by means of clause subordination that depend on whether the action of the clause has adversative outcomes to the clause subject or topic.

1. When to use Passive Voice in Vietnamese.

Like English, Vietnamese use passive voice in these cases:

- When the speaker does not want to mention or not know the agent (Ex: Một sai lầm đã được thực hiện: A mistake was made)

- When the speaker just want to pay attention to the result of the action. (Ex: Tiếng Anh được sử dụng khắp thế giới: English is spoken all over the world)

- When the speaker wants to have a smoother sentence by keeping the same subject for the two or more verbs. For example, Cô ấy thường hay giúp đỡ người nghèo và được mọi người quý mến vì việc làm đó: She often helps the poor and is respected for these kind things)

2. Structure of Vietnamese Passive Voice.
The general structure of a Vietnamese passive sentence are formed by the formula: ĐƯỢC/ BỊ + VERB

Object + bị/ được + agent +V

Object + bị/ được + V (+ bởi + agent)

For example:

Tôi được anh ấy tặng một món quà. (I was given a gift by him).

Sữa được dùng để làm bơ và phô mai. (Milk is used for making butter and cheese).

As Dinh Hong Van (2007) said in Ha Noi National University science magazine, these are some basic types of Vietnamese passive voice:

  • S + bị/ được + V.

  • Lọ hoa bị bể (The vase was broken)

  • Sữa được dùng để làm bơ và phô mai. (Milk is used for making butter and cheese).

  • S + bị/ được + agent + V

  • Tên trộm bị cảnh sát bắt hôm qua. ( The thief was arrested by the police yesterday).

  • Bức thư được tôi gửi sáng nay. (The letter was sent by me this morning).

  • S + bị/ được + V + bởi + agent

  • Cái bánh này được làm bởi mẹ tôi. (The cake was made by my mother).

  • Lan bị cắn bởi con chó (Lan was bitten by the dog)

  • "bị/được" is replaced by “do”.

    • Bài hát này do anh ấy sáng tác (This song is written by him)


  1. Similarities.

In both English and Vietnamese, we use passive voice to put more attention on the fact, the action or the result of the action. We want to focus more on the recipient than on the performer, as a result, the doer or the agent is often omitted.



Structure: be + P.P

bị/được/do” + transitive verb

(“bị/được/do” considered as a signal of passive voice, similar to “get/be” in English).

Sentences have passive voice (that can hardly be recognized) in the structure: relative pronoun + be

The standard (which was) based on evaluation of Government, was broadly popularized

Passive voice has no “bị/được” but it can be added without changing the sentence’s meaning:

Tiêu chuẩn dựa trên sự đánh giá của Chính Phủ đã được phổ biến rộng rãi trong nước”

“Tiêu chuẩn được dựa trên sự đánh giá của Chính Phủ đã được phổ biến rộng rãi”.

  1. Differences.

- The formation of Vietnamese passive voice is mainly based on the lexical meaning or grammatical status of the words "bị/ được/ do". Although in some cases, the passive meaning is mainly understood by the semantic meaning of the whole sentence. English passive voice is marked by the form of the verbs (Be + P.P).

Cơm chín rồi.

The rice has been cooked.

- In English, the structure "BE+ P.P" can change depending on the certain subject and tense while in Vietnamese, the words "bị/ được/ do" never change their forms.

- In Vietnamese, the structure "bị + V" goes along with the negative meaning and "được + V" goes along with positive meaning. In English, no matter what positive or negative meaning, there are no change in the structure "BE+ P.P".

- Passive voice is used more often in English than in Vietnamese. Or we can say Vietnamese prefer active form. So, if we translate English - Vietnamese word by word, it can make our translation sound not natural.


Firstly, as a matter of fact, Vietnamese students tend to have a habit of translating word by word from English to Vietnamese or vice versa. This can cause them to make a lot of mistakes. They often use "bị, được" when translating English- Vietnamese. This can lead to the consequence that they seem to consider any sentences which contain “bị/ được” as passive. For example:

Xe bị hự - The car was broken down.

Tôi bị mất tiền - I was lost my money.

As a teacher, we should give careful notes to our students to avoid misleading their way of thinking. One suggestion for teachers is that when we ask students to translate, we may ask them to drop bị/ được and see whether they still convey meaning and are grammatical.

Secondly, we should ask the learners to notice that most of passive verbs that can be used in the structure: S + transitive verb are not often in the passive form in Vietnamese. Students should be aware that the object cannot perform the actions. So it is better to translate them into English as passive to be sure that they will not violate its grammatical form.

Goods are carried by truck.- Hàng chở tới bằng xe tải.

My house has already been built. - Nhà tôi xây xong rồi.

Thirdly, students need to know the important role of passive voice in English and Vietnamese, how to express it in various forms. I hope this paper will help learners recognize the passive voice more easily and have correct transference between the two languages. Although there is no structure "be + P.P" in sentences such as “I got my hair cut" or "I had my bicycle repaired yesterday", students need to recognize the passive meanings.

Last but not least, teachers and students who want to become good translators need to have a good understanding of contrast between the two languages which can help them to sound more natural and native in writing also in speaking. Moreover, people whose native language is English but they want to learn Vietnamese can find some helpful information about the passive voice in English and Vietnamese from this essay.


By comparing and contrasting passive voice in English and Vietnamese, we can see that language is so complex. Besides the similarities, Vietnamese and English passive voice have a lot of differences in their structure, the way English verbs change depending on the subject and tense while Vietnamese verbs never change.

I hope this paper can give some helpful information and good understanding for language learners also language teachers in the way to master English. Knowing the contrastive points of passive voice between English and Vietnamese can help students develop their linguistic skills in both languages, also have a deeper and better knowledge about English, language they are learning, in comparison with their mother language.


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Stilman, A. (2010). Grammatical Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage... Ohio: Writer's Digest Books.

Wilbers, S. (2007). Keys to Great Writing. Ohio: Writer's Digest Books.

Yates, J. (1997). Master the Basic English. Massachusetts: Barron's.

Hương, M. L., & Loan, N. T. ( 2003) Ngữ Pháp Tiếng Anh. Ho Chi Minh city: Publisher of Youth.

Tuc, H. D. (2003). Vietnamese- English Bilingualism. New York: Routledge Curzon.

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