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Passive Voice in English and Vietnamese.





A Contrastive Analysis and Educational Implications

Nguyen Thu Thuy

Class 4A_07

Ho Chi Minh City, 28/ 12/ 2010


In the globalization era, languages play an important role in communication and social, economic development as well. Languages bring endless values and opportunities for the learners and provide them with confidence and activeness in all interactive, interpersonal relationship. More than that, languages also open a new life for the learners to discover and challenge their new horizons. Being able to work and communicate with people from different backgrounds and cultures is not only a strong motivation but also a qualified requirement for all the modern labor force. However, learning languages require the learners a lot of efforts and obviously, learners encounter a lot of difficulties when they often misunderstand the similarities and dissimilarities between the target language and their mother tongue. As a Vietnamese learner and a would-be English teacher, I think that we should raise the students’ awareness about 2 language systems in all aspects such as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary. It will be easier for them to recognize some common mistakes, avoid making mistakes and gradually use the foreign language correctly and flexibly. From my observation, Passive Voice is an English grammatical structure that students often confuse. So, in this assignment, I would like to point out some issues that cause popular confusion and suggest some education implications. And besides that, I also emphasize some aspects to distinguish Passive Voice and appearance frequencies in 2 different language systems.


Many linguists regard grammar structures as the core figures of one specific language. When learning a language, learners are obligated to learn the grammar structures to express their ideas. Grammar rules are so well-governed and traditional that we can hardly find other explanations except the ones in all grammar books. They have the strong power and influence on all other aspects of learning. And in Vietnam, English grammar rules are strongly emphasized in all level of learning. The students need to know the form in order to convey the meanings and functions. One form is used to convey more than one single function and depending on the purpose of the speakers, we can you different forms to express different meanings. And to a certain extent, Passive Voice is somehow related to this matter.

In order to understand more about Passive, we should pay attention to the purpose of using this structure. Passive voice is a voice that indicates that the subject is the patient or recipient of the action denoted by the verb. Passive Voice focuses on the action, not the agent. So when we have 2 indirect objects, we choose the more important one to be the subject. And passive Voice is formed based on this rule:

Form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

In Active Voice Subject will stand before Verbs:

Ex: They buy some flowers in this flower shop.

  • Some flowers are bought in this flower shop.


When changing the Active Voice into Passive, we need to pay attention to Subject, Verb, and Object. Here are some examples to illustrate some common rules in sentence transformation.

  • Subject of the Active Voice will become object of Passive Voice

  • Verb of the Active Voice will become verb of Passive Voice, and is used in the form: Tobe + Past Participle

  • Object of the Active Voice will become Subject of Passive Voice

The identification of the subject relation may be further confirmed by finding significant overlap with similar subject relations previously established in other languages.

  • In English, we have 2 kinds of verbs: Transitive and Intransitive

  • Transitive verbs are able to take a direct object, so they can be used in Passive Voice. Ex: build, sell, buy, cut….

  • Intransitive verbs are unable to take a direct object, so they cannot be used in Passive Voice. Ex: sleep, fall, eat…

  • Passive constructions are easy to spot. Look for a form of "to be" (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in "-ed." Some exceptions to the "-ed" rule are words like "paid" (not "payed") and "driven." (not "drived"). Here's a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:

  • form of "to be" + past participle = passive voice

The usage of Passive Voice is very stylistic to clarify the main point you wants to readers to recognize. Passive Voice is very popular in a lot of scientific research and newspaper or official papers when the writers want to have formal style and avoid causing some embarrassment. And these are some common situations when you can use this structure.

  • To emphasize an object:

  • 20 houses were sold in this region last year.

This passive sentence emphasizes the number of houses which were sold, and do not pay attention to who bought them. An active version of the sentence ("some people bought 20 houses in this region last year”) would put the emphasis on the buyers, who may be less significant than the statistics.

  • To de-emphasize an unknown actor/ subject

  • More than 2000 buildings are destroyed in the earthquake.

If you don't actually know who destroyed the buildings or it is obvious that the earthquake destroyed them and you do not need to mention again, then you may need to write in the passive. But remember, if you do know the actor, and if the clarity and meaning of your writing would benefit from indicating him/her/it/them, then use an active construction.

If the readers do not need to know who is responsible for the action.

If it is hard for you to choose Active or Passive, try to put yourself in your reader's position to anticipate how he/she will react to the way you have phrased your thoughts.

KFC was delivered at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(passive)


A man from KFC shop delivered KFC at 3:30 a.m. yesterday.(active)

The first sentence might be more appropriate when listeners do not really care about the man; they are so more interested in the object (KFC). But if we want to focus on the serviceman, we should use the first structure.


Vietnamese has the different grammatical rules. In Vietnamese, changing the word orders is the main way to change it into Passive Voice and we can not change word forms, even with verbs. So, we can not base on the word form or grammar structures. And if we totally base on grammar structures, we can be led to wrong conclusion.

Ex: Tôi bị té.

These following examples will modify more:




Passive Voice which is transformed based on the relevant tense.

  • My house is built.

Passive voice containing “bị/ được” and the agent and the object of action.

Passive voice regarding “bị/ được” as independent verbs, and after these verbs, we do not need to use other verbs.

Ex: Con được nhận quà của ông già Noel.

Passive voice containing “bị/ được” before other verbs, and modifies the passive meaning for the whole sentence.

Ex: Cô ấy bị kiện ra tòa.


Passive voices with Inversion in a Clause.

Ex: It is thought that she has stolen the budget.

Passive voice has “bị/ được” but does not have any object.

Ex: Toàn bộ tiền đều bị đánh cắp.


Passive voice has 2 Objects (Indirect object and Direct Object). Choosing which object to be the subject depends on the purpose and emphasis of the speech.

Ex: She was given a big house as the birthday present.

A big house was given to her as the birthday present.

Passive Voict have e which does not appear “bị/ được”. However, we can add “bị/ được” to this sentence.

Ex: Bài báo dựa trên các thông tin có thật về thị trường chính khoán.

Ex: Bài báo được dựa trên các thông tin có thật về thị trường chính khoán.


Passive Voice is followed by To- infinitive.

Ex: The patients are not permitted to smoke in the hospital.

Passive voice does not express the meaning of actions but the meaning of situations.

Ex: Tôi bị đuổi việc.


Passive voice with passive Infinitive.

Ex: The passengers who fight against the police must be punished.


Passive Voice with Causative meaning.

Ex: I have my hair cut.


Passive Voice with To- infinitive.

Ex: There is nothing to be done to save the destroyed environment.


Passive Voice with Gerund ( V-ing)

Ex: They like being treated well in the new communities.


V-ing with the Passive meaning.

Ex: The house needs cleaning.


Passive Voice with past- participles, without Tobe/ get

Ex: The doll made in China is very cheap.

Passive Voice without “bị/ được” but still has the passive meaning.

Ex: Đồ chơi do Trung Quốc sản xuất thường không an toàn cho trẻ em.


Students often have made mistakes when translating sentences with “bị/ được” especially at elementary level, “bị/ được” is overemphasized in English- Vietnamese translation, the consequence of which is the tendency to treat any sentences containing “bị/ được” as Passive.

Ex: Tôi bị mất tiền = I was lost my money.

Ngôi nhà đã bị đổ sập xuống = The house was collapsed.

Therefore, we should pay attention to the notes and instructions when conducting new form to beginner of English to avoid misleading way of thinking in the long run.

I personally suggest that in sentences like these, teachers may ask pupils to drop bị/được and see whether they are still grammatical. If the answer is "yes" the sentence under consideration is not passive and vice versa.

And we should point out ways to distinguish Intransitive and Transitive Verbs and the numbers of Transitive Verbs used in this structure is very narrow compared with Vietnamese.

        In countering such sentences as:

  • Đồ ăn nấu xong rồi, tới dọn bàn đi nha!

     A learner should be aware the subject can not carry out the actions and in this case, it is better to play safe by translating them as passive although English does allow a subject of its verb to be used similarly to those of Vietnamese.

These practical applications are very helpful for language learners and such a research is the goal we aimed at.

Other examples will modify some common errors:

  • A thief uses a false key to break into this house.

  • This house is broken by the false key. (wrong)

Students have difficulties when they face Phrasal verbs (verbs containing Verbs and prepositions), they have tendency to omit Prepositions.

Moreover, students often use “by” before the agent, so they must be aware that we have to use “with” before the tool which is used to carry out the action.

  • Ex: He was killed with a big branch. (1)

  • Ex: He was killed by a big branch. (2)

The first sentence means that somebody used the big branch to kill him. The second sentence means that the branch is the reason which killed him, maybe in an accident.


   In term of linguistic factors:

     From all observation and evaluation, we come to a conclusion the lexical meaning or grammatical status of such word as “bị/ được/phải” become the main principles for us to form Vietnamese Passive Form. And we do not always base on the form, but the semantic meaning of the whole sentence in order to find out what is mainly mentioned.

Ex: Tòa nhà mới đã xong nhưng chưa có ai vào ở.

In term of semantic, this sentence sounds very illogic because “tòa nhà mới” is an object and itself can not carry out the action and it must be human who builds it. But in fact, it is grammatically correct. In English, we consider Passive Voice based on the grammatical forms because English is a synthetic language. Sometimes, the meaning of passiveness must be understood through the context, the roles of the speakers and the situations when the sentences are uttered.

    In term of beyond language factors

In both English and Vietnamese, passive voice is used to focus on the fact, the action or result of an action. Therefore, in passive sentence, the doers are often omitted but its disappearance does not influence the meaning of the event.

 Passive voice has an important role in English, especially in academic works where the actions taken place without mentioning the doer. Vietnamese, vice versa, prefer active form. Hence, sometimes when translating from English into Vietnamese, if the translator keeps the original structure, the Vietnamese version will not very idiomatic. We can take here several examples from the passage

Ex: A suggestion is made to the students who do not have enough money to pay for their fees is that they should have a suitable part-time job.

We should not translate word by word like this:

Một lời đề nghị được làm tới những sinh viên không có đủ tiền để trang trải học phí là họ nên tìm công việc bán thời gian phù hợp.

Ex: người ta đề nghị những sinh viên không có đủ tiền trang trải học phí nên tìm công việc làm thêm phù hợp.

Another example is:

  • Milk is drunk by the babies.

It will be very strange for Vietnamese students to say: Sữa được uống bởi các em bé.

It will be better if they translate into Vietnamese like this:

Những em bé uống sữa.

Teacher should be alert and sensitive when guiding the students into the translation that is widely spoken and accepted in Vietnamese. The passive one sounds artificial and unlike to be said. But if the active sentence was “Millions of people drink Tiger Beer all over the world."

Then the passive "Tiger Beer is drunk all over the world" is definitely feasible if the passive was used, listeners can imagine how popular the beer is, and so the importance of this kind of beer can be emphasized.

In spoken language, there is still another quite interesting thing of using bị/được/phải especially in Northern Vietnam.

Ex: Bàn thắng này hơi bị đẹp.

Cái giải thưởng này hơi bị to đấy.

       It can be seen that in these examples bị/ được mean nothing relating to passive or suffering. However, these sentences sometimes express negative meaning than positive meaning. Also, sometimes "được" can be used and followed a verb to express the meaning of a "good result" of an action, such as in these sentences. Ex: Tôi được chọn làm đại sứ cho công ty.

(I was nominated to be the representative of company)



           We can see that language is so sophisticated. The way we use and totally understand the meaning of one expression or structure depends on how you can familiarize yourself with it in the suitable situations. And realizing the differences in the first and second language helps you to analyze. The important way in which Vietnamese passive differs from English one is that Vietnamese verbs don't themselves imply a clear notion of "voice" in the grammatical sense. However, in English, a transitive verb can be active or passive. No such distinction is necessary in Vietnamese. Hence, the object of Vietnamese verbs is not formally marked. In the limited words, all of my information may be not enough. Hopefully, it can provide learners with some guides and tips in writing and transforming sentence in specific context. And more than that, students can use what they have learned in the classroom in the classroom successfully and confidently. Communicative competence is the goal of all learners and I hope that Passive Voice can help you to be more active. I think we should try to talk and think in the way the native speakers say or talk rather than think in our traditional way



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