I'm new to this site (just made an account), I've been learning about the passive form of verbs but I'm a bit confused by what the passive form actually is... I tried googling but couldn't find an explanation that didn't use lots of lingustic vocabulary. Am I right in thinking its similar in a way to how you'd speak if you were to narrate something... (sorry I don't know many grammatical terms).

For example:

ケーキが誰かに食べられた。"The cake was eaten by someone" would be how you'd speak if you were narrating or reading something to somebody etc..

Basically just want an idea of what the passive form actually is...

  • Not really. I know how to use instinctively as I'm a native English speaker but don't really know how to describe what it is... I tried googling it but keep getting lots of grammatical terminology which I don't understand.
    Commented Jan 31, 2015 at 18:08
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    If I may, I would like to ask a question to English speakers here. When you say something like "I was born in (Place).", are you conscious of the fact that you are using the pasive voice? In Japanese, BTW, that sentence practically never is formed in the passive voice. We say 『(Place)で生まれた/生まれました。』 in the active voice.
    – user4032
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 1:50
  • To answer your question, I've never been conscious of that but I do recognise it when you mention it. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 18:04
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    @l'électeur That's an interesting example! It's unusual as a passive because it doesn't take a by-phrase expressing the agent (*He was born by a Greek peasant; see the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language p.1436). Anyway, most native English speakers don't know how to identify the passive voice in the first place, so they aren't particularly conscious of it.
    – user1478
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 18:08
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    It also seems interesting in Japanese, since うまれる is derived from the passive form of うむ. Martin discusses these intransitive verbs derived from passives in his Reference Grammar of Japanese, starting on page 307.
    – user1478
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 18:55

1 Answer 1


I hope I get your question right.

Why do people use passive voice?

1) Because there is no alternative, the subject cannot act on its own.

I was born in A.
The cake was eaten by John.

When the baby is born other people do all the work. The baby is just born.
The cake cannot do much of his own. Therefore other people act upon him. A cake can smell, however, so it is important to consider the scenario: In the eating situation the cake cannot do much but being eaten.

2) To Emphasise. Sometimes both things can act and we want to emphasis one of them. We can also write

John ate the cake

Now the focus is on John. Does he regret? What will he eat next? But if someone were to ask "My cake! Where is my cake?" the cake would be important and we would answer: The cake was eaten by John.(Actually, we wouldn't because people tend to avoid passive when having spoken conversation, but logically we would.)

Why do Japanese people use passive voice?

L37 of Minna no Nihongo says (I don't have the english version, so no direct quote)

(P1)は(P2)に(passive form verb)

To express an action done by P2 towards P1 from P1s perspective. P1 becomes the topic of the sentence

(P1)は(P2)に(N)を(passive form verb)

To describe what P2 does with a possession of P1. In most cases P1 is annoyed by that.

If the acting person is not important, you can make a sentence with passive and leave out the actor as in

フランスで 昔{むかし}の 日本の 絵{え}が 発{はっ}見{けん}されました。
An early Japanese painting was discovered in France

There are more examples, but (as I see it) it boils down to 'emphasis on the person/thing that is acted upon'.

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