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the italian passive voice - la voce passiva

Our lessons so far have focused only on one characteristic of verbs: tense. The tense of a verb tells us when an action takes place (past, present, future, etc.).

But all verbs in both English and Italian also have another characteristic: voice. The two voices of verbs are active and passive. So far we’ve learned verbs in the active voice only, in the present, present perfect (passato prossimo), imperfetto and future (and conditional but that’s not exactly considered a tense I don’t think).

Today we’ll learn the passive voice.

In an active voice sentence (as we’ve already seen), the subject does the verb and the object receives it.

In a passive voice sentence, these functions are reversed. The subject of the sentence now receives the action and the former object does it.

Watch this:

The dog [subject] bites [active voice verb] the boy [object]. (Subject does the biting.)

The dog [subject] is bitten [passive voice verb] by the boy. (Subject receives the biting. Former object does it.)

With a bit of recasting you can change the voice of a verb from active to passive without changing the meaning of the sentence. (This is not true of tense.)

A dog bit [active] the boy.

The boy was bitten [passive] by a dog.

See? Simply by recasting the sentence slightly you can change from active to passive without changing the meaning of the sentence. Rather the change is merely stylistic. It shifts our focus. In the passive sentence we focus more on the boy. You as the writer or speaker must decide which voice to use based on the stylistic effects you want to achieve. There’s no clear cut right or wrong. But how is the passive formed?

Simple. To form the passive voice you use essere plus the past participle of the verb denoting the action. The tense of essere matches the tense of the active voice verb. Watch:

Mario mangia la pizza.
La pizza è mangiata da Mario.

Passato Prossimo
Mario ha mangiato la pizza.
La pizza è stata mangiata da Mario.

Mario mangiava la pizza.
La pizza era mangiata da Mario.

Mario mangerà la pizza.
La pizza sarà mangiata da Mario.

Notice that, as with all participles used with essere (the participle is the word ending in -ato, -uto or -ito, "mangiata" in the examples above), participles in the passive agree in gender and number with the subject of the passive sentence (as indicated by the bold letters). And whereas English uses "by" (The pizza was eaten by Mario), Italian uses da.

And that’s the long and short of it! You've just been taught the Italian passive!

Reader Comments (3)

Many thanks for this simple clear review of the passive.
March 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTony Hamill
Hi, thanks for the explanation. I noticed a slight error in the text. You wrote

The dog [subject] is bitten [passive voice verb] by the boy. (Subject receives the biting. Former object does it.)

But, this shouldn't this be :

The boy [subject] is bitten [passive voice verb] by the dog....
April 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertim
You forgot to mention that <venire> can substitute <essere> as the auxilary verb:

( Il messaggio verrĂ  inviato da me ) == ( Il messaggio sarĂ  inviato da me )
June 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

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