How To Use Passive Form In Spanish

Spanish has the same passive form as English, ser + past participle, which agrees in gender and number with the subject:

  •  the houses were destroyed = las casas fueron destruidas


However, use of the passive is much less common than in English and it is used more in written than in spoken language (although it does have broader use in Latin America than in Spain)

Spanish also uses the following to express the English passive:

? the personal pronoun se

This is used either in the so-called pasiva refleja:

  •  it was published in 1933 = se publicó en 1933


or in the impersonal form:

  •  she was informed that… = se le comunicó que…
  •  it is known that… = se sabe que…


This impersonal use frequently occurs when describing processes:

  •  the pulp is then extracted = luego se extrae la pulpa


Note however that if the agent of the passive construction is mentioned, the reflexive construction cannot be used:

  •  it was written by a monk = fue escrito por un monje


(but not se escribió por un monje)

? the third person plural:

  •  he was robbed = le robaron


This sense of an unknown agent cannot be expressed by the third person plural in English, where the statement they robbed him would prompt the question who?

? the active

This works in two ways. A phrase can simply be reworded in active form, e.g. the sentence the novel was completed by her sister might equally be expressed as la novela fue terminada por su hermana or su hermana terminó la novela

Alternatively, it works by keeping the subject the same but adding an ‘extra’ pronoun before the verb:

  •  this expression is used a lot by Americans = esta expresión la usan mucho los americanos


Some phrases may therefore be translated by a number of structures:

  •  it was built in 1903 = fue construido en 1903 or se construyó en 1903 or lo construyeron en 1903


Nonetheless, the English speaker of Spanish needs to acquire a feel for which means of expressing the passive is most apt for the context being translated

Note also:

? the use of relative clauses in Spanish to keep the sentence active rather than passive:

  •  the context being translated = el contexto que se traduce


? the use of relative clauses in the subjunctive that switch subject:

  •  she deserves to be promoted = merece que la asciendan


? the flexibility Spanish has in its use of infinitives, especially after por, sin, para, and a:

  •  lo que queda por hacer = what remains to be done
  •  la carta está sin contestar = the letter is unanswered
  •  está listo para pintar = it’s ready to be painted
  •  horario a convenir = hours to be arranged


Where English requires a passive construction in the above examples, Spanish can use the normal infinitive

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