A contrastive Analysis of Passive Voice in English and Vietnamese

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A Contrastive Analysis of Passive Voice in English and Vietnamese

University of Pedagogy

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

Contrastive Analysis 2010

20 December, 2010


Look at the picture above and make two sentences to describe what you see in it, one is in English and the other is in Vietnamese.

Are those “He is bitten by a dog.” or “A dog bites him.” and “Anh ta bị cắn bởi một con chó.”, “Anh ta bị chó cắn.” or “Con chó cắn anh ta.”? Which one sounds natural?

All of them but “Anh ta bị cắn bởi một con chó“. What makes this unnaturalness? It is that the mistake in translating a passive meaning sentence from English into Vietnamese, which most English learners, even the advanced ones, often encounter. For the purpose of helping learners avoid this common mistake, my paper will discuss the passive voice in English and Vietnamese in a contrastive view.

The research has three main parts. In the first part, there are some general concepts of the passive voice to give the readers a clearer picture about this topic. In the second one, the paper is about this phenomenon in each of these two languages accompanied with the comparison between the passive voice in English and Vietnamese, especially the form, usage, frequency of using and genre distinction. The last part will see the implication of this paper for teaching and learning English.

What is voice?

“Voice is a grammatical category of verbs that is related to what thing or person is acting and what thing or person is being acted upon.” (Crystal, 2002) or

“In grammar, the voice (also called diathesis) of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergo-er of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.” (“English Passive Voice”, 2009)

What is passive voice?

“The passive voice is a grammatical construction (a voice) in which the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action rather than the performer.” (“English Passive Voice”, 2009). Take “He is bitten by a dog.” as an example: “He” is the recipient of the action “bite” and the performer is “the dog”. It can be considered as a passive voice.


Passive voice in English


The passive voice is commonly formed by combining a form of the "to be verb" with the past participle (P.P) of the main verb BE + P.P. We call this type as “Be passive”.

Be passive can be used in various tenses. For example:

This house is built. (Simple present)

This house is being built at the present. (Present continuous)

This house will be built next month. (Simple future)

This house was built in 1990. (Simple past)

This house has been built for 20 days. (Present perfect)…

In addition to this particular type, English learners should also pay attention to these nine special cases of the passive voice. They are:

Special cases

Passive voices


Unreal subject

It is believed that…., It is supposed to….

It is said that he is 109 years old.

It is supposed to be very good.


Causative form

have something done, get something done

He had the car repaired.

He is going to get his eyes tested.


Reduced relative clause

None of the people invited to the party can come.

The money stolen in the robbery was never found.


Past infinitive

must have, should have, …

My bicycle must have been stolen.

The window should have been cleaned yesterday.


Verb + Object 1 + Object 2

They offered Ann a Job.

Ann was offered a job.

A job is offered to Ann.


Verb + to-infinitive

I want to be left alone.

That kid was promised to be picked up at 7PM.


Verb + Gerund

I don’t like being told what to do.

I remember being given a present on my seventh birthday.


V-ing with passive meaning

The grass need cutting.


Modal verbs

This problem can be solved.

He must be punished.

Sometimes, “get” is often used in place of “be” in the passive voice. We call it as “Get passive”. For example:

There was a fight in the party but nobody got hurt.

I got told to keep her story secret.


The passive voice emphasizes the person or the recipients of the action. These are some cases that the passive voice is employed:

Firstly, the performer is unknown, irrelevant, or obvious. (English Passive voice: 2009) For example,

Grape was first planted in Australia.” (1)

The first edition of Franklin's earliest writings was published in 2000.” (2)

In (1) we don’t know the ones who first planted grape. In (2) Franklin is obvious, we don’t need to repeat it.

Secondly, the performer is less important than the action. For instance:

Vegetables should be kept in the refrigerator.”

The action of keeping vegetables in the fridge is more important than the fact that who should keep it the fridge.

Thirdly, the one who does the action is not wanted to be mentioned.

Your glass is broken.”

The troublemaker is concealed but the fact that the glass is broken is still transferred.

Next, the recipient is the main topic, for instance, the subject that the author wants to discuss in a sentence should occur near the beginning in the topic position where the reader can find it easily. For example, In “Children must be protested.”, the reader can know the main topic is about “the children”.

In addition, the same subject for two distinguished action is used. (English Passive voice: 2009):

He passed in the interview and was offered that job.”

Finally, “Get passive” is used in informal speech and writing to express: misfortune, accomplishment, arrangement, and work completed. Take “He got told to send a letter to Marry.” as an example.

Passive voice in Vietnamese


We can easily recognize that one sentence in Vietnamese is an active or a passive voice by “được” and “bị”. For example:

Tôi được mời dự đám cưới.

Nó bị cô giáo phạt.”

Therefore, we can form a general structure of the passive voice in Vietnamese as “ĐƯỢC”/”BỊ” + VERB.

In Vietnamese, “được” brings a positive meaning for the passive voice and passive voice with “bị” is used with negative meaning. For instance:

“Con được cô giáo khen.”

“Con bị ăn hiếp.”

Passive voice in Vietnamese includes these following types (Ngữ pháp tiếng Việt : 2008)




The passive voice with “bị”/”được” includes the performer and objects:

  • “bị” / “được is the main verb and not followed by any others.

  • “bị” / “được” is followed by a verb

Con bị điểm kếm

Con được 10 điểm.

.Thần tượng âm nhạc năm 2010 bị dư luận phản đổi.

Anh ấy được nhà nọ mời đi dự tiệc.


The passive voice with “bị” / “được” has no objects.

Ngôi nhà được xây dựng cách đây 20 năm.

Nó bị ăn hiếp.


The passive voice has no “bị” / “được” but ““bị” / “được can be added to that voice.

Kết luận rút ra từ những dẫn chứng này.

Kết luận đươc rút ra từ những dẫn chứng này.

Con thuyền trôi ra đảo.

Con thuyền bị trôi ra đảo.


The passive voice mentions the status but not the action.

Tôi bị mất tiền.

Tôi được sung sướng.

However, just like the passive voice in English, the one in Vietnamese also has some special cases.

Not all passive meanings are recognized with the two words above. We have some kinds of special passive voice which there is no “được” or “bị” convey passive meanings. For example,

Cửa mới sơn” (The door has just been painted.),

Quần áo giặt bằng máy” (The clothes are washed by the washing machines)

Bạn sinh ở đâu?”(Where were you born?”)

And vice versa, some cases of passive voice in Vietnamese contain “bị”/”được” but they totally have no passive meaning. For instance:

Nhan sắc của nhỏ này hơi bị được đó nha.” (She is beautiful.)

Tớ hát hơi bị hay đấy cậu.” (I can sing well)

Tôi được gặp tổng thống.” (I met the President.)

Cô ấy bị lạc đường.” (She gets lost.)


Passive voice is not the best choice for Vietnamese people’s daily conversations. However, it is used by many writers, scientists. These are some cases that Vietnamese people need to use the passive voice:

Firstly, they want to emphasize the results of the action. “150 người bị bão cuốn trôi, 200 hộ dân mất nhà cửa.” “150 người” and “200 hộ dân” are emphasized by using passive voice.

Secondly, they do not know the performers. “Cậu ấy vừa bị mất laptop đấy.” – We don’t know who the robber is.

Lastly, they want to keep the same performer for two different actions “Vắc-xin điều trị H1N1 đã được bào chế và đưa vào sử dụng.” – “bào chế” and “đưa vào sử dụng” have the same subject.


Genre distinction

Be passives are high frequency in abstract and technical genres, especially official documents and academic prose - typically used to impose an objective, formal style. Written genres show low frequency of get passives, which are most likely to appear in spoken genres. This suggests that get passives are more informal in style. (Crystal : 2002). Vietnamese people do not often use passive voice in their daily lives, but many writers, scientists do use it in their works.


The frequency of passive use in English is far higher, and many writers agree that English has a tendency to overuse passives, whereas Vietnamese people tend to avoid them. (Crystal : 2002).


The differences in form are because of the different language families and language types: English belongs to Indo-European language family and Inflectional language type when Austro-Asiatic and non-Inflectional are the characteristics of Vietnamese.




be + past participle

The forms of "to be" and the verbs change based on the subjects and the tenses.

Her homework was fished yesterday.

Her homework will be finished tomorrow.

được” / “bị” + verb

No changes are made in the forms

of both “được/bị” and the verbs.
Hôm qua bạn ấy được nhận một bông hồng (no changes)

Hôm nay bạn ấy bị phạt. (no changes)

In addition, we can draw out that the Vietnamese structure of the passive voice is “S + được/bị + O + verb”. So that when translating from English to Vietnamese, we should avoid words by words translation because it is not like “S + Be + P.P + by + O” as English. For example, for “She is given a lovely doll by her mother.”, we have to translate as “Cô ấy được mẹ tặng một con búp bê rất đẹp” but not “Cô ấy được tặng một con búp bê rất đẹp bởi mẹ cô ấy.”


The paper with some contrastive points is made in order to become an efficient tool for teaching and learning.

Firstly, teachers have to pay much attention to help the student realize the passive voices easily because sometimes they are in some special cases as I mentioned above. Moreover, helping them with a suitable translation instead of words by words translation is necessary.

Secondly, this paper will help students develop their linguistic skills in both English and Vietnamese. Learning theories and having a bigger picture by studying about the contrastive points between these two languages passive voice can make them easily remember.

Lastly, for one who is practicing translating. This paper alsos help you know more about a phenomenon in Vietnamese language. It can provide other nationality translator with the success in dealing with Vietnamese language.

So far we have just discussed some contrastive points of the passive voice in English and Vietnamese. It helps us draw out one of the major causes of unnaturalness in English – Vietnamese translations by not only students of English as well as people who practice translating as their profession. I hope that my paper can help the English learners, the teachers and the translators have a clear picture when working with the passive meaning sentences.


Cao Xuan Hao. (1999). Tiếng Việt – Mấy vấn đề ngữ âm, ngữ pháp, ngữ nghĩa. Hanoi: Publisher of Education.

Crystal. (2002). Exploring Grammar in Context. Ho Chi Minh City: The Youth Publisher

English passive voice. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved November 27, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voice

Eastwood, J. (1997). Oxford Guide to English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Huuleston, R & K.Pullum, G (2002). Cambridge Grammar of the English language. Cambridge University Press

Ngữ pháp tiếng Việt. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved December 1st, 2008, from http://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngu_phap_tieng_viet

Simon. (2003). Grammar Power. Ho Chi Minh City: The Youth Publisher

Swan, M. (2000). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Thomson, A.J & Martinet, A.V. (2000). Practical English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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