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The Japanese passive voice has been bothering me for quite a while. I mean, We don't really use it in English, and I still have not come across many situation (at least daily situations)Where the Japanese passive voice has been used, besides in articles and essays.

I do get the general idea of how to use 受身形{うけみけい}, however, I'm still not sure of when to use it.

So my question is, when exactly do I use 受身形{うけみけい}?

For example:

① ジョンは先生に質問をした

② 先生はジョンに質問をされた

Wouldn't it be more natural to use the active voice instead of the passive voice? This is what confuses me. When exactly do I use the passive voice.

  • If you don't think passive voice is used frequently in English, then you probably don't understand what passive voice is? – Just Someone Jan 30 '17 at 2:46
  • I wouldn't say it is used that much in spoken English, is it? I mean, I have seen it in essays or articles and what not but, not as much in spoken ? I might be completely wrong thought. So feel free to correct me if I have misunderstood things. @imaichiko – YuiPyon Jan 30 '17 at 3:06
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    You just wrote the noun phrase "it is used that much in spoken English" in the passive voice. Passive voice is when you take a "subject + verb + object" sentence structure, and then make the original object the subject and (optionally) make the original subject into a prepositional object. "He hit the ball." -- passive voice --> "The ball was hit (by him)." – Just Someone Jan 30 '17 at 3:06
  • Here is an article that discusses, passive, causative, and passive-causative forms, as well as passive for polite expression, and shortened forms for the causative and passive-causative: guidetojapanese.org/learn/grammar/causepass – Craig Hicks Jan 31 '17 at 7:29
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ジョンは先生に質問をした focuses on what John did, whereas 先生はジョンに質問をされた focuses on what happened to the teacher. As you know, the word marked with は is the topic of the sentence. These two sentences look equally natural to me, but they are not necessarily interchangeable. Which to use depends on the theme of the conversation.

In general, when "what was done" is more important than "who did it", people tend to use passive voice in Japanese (probably more often than you do so in English). In particular, when you are negatively affected by the action, the passive voice conveys such nuance well (known as "sufferer passive").

  • 彼は僕を殴った。 He hit me.
  • (彼に)殴られた。 I was hit (by him).

When you report this incident to someone, 殴られた is the default choice because you have been negatively affected by the punch. Saying the former would sound too indifferent.

When you cannot (or don't want to) mention who does the action, the passive voice is used both in English and Japanese:

  • この塔は200年前に建てられました。
    This tower was built 200 years ago.

In this case, saying "They/Someone built this tower 200 years ago" is less natural even in casual English, isn't it?

The Japanese language tend to avoid taking inanimate things as subjects (see this). You can say "The news surprised me" (active) in English, but in Japanese, そのニュースは私を驚かせました is very literary and almost never happens in speech. A better way of putting it is そのニュースに私は驚かされました using the passive voice, which translates to "I was surprised at the news." (passive). But this is still a bit unnatural, and people usually say そのニュースに私は驚きました instead, using an intransitive verb 驚く that means "to be surprised". It's complicated, but note that in some cases only English speakers use passive voice. To take another example, "I'm worried" (passive) is usually "心配している" (active) in Japanese.

Lastly, this is a very big topic and it's hard to generalize when to use the passive voice. There is an article discussing the difference in the usage of passive voice between English and Japanese, but reading this may not help you understand the real usage much. Probably you need to read many real and long text to get used to the Japanese passive voice.

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We use passive voice in order to keep consistency of sentences.

When you describe a fact that ジョンは先生に質問した / 先生はジョンに質問された in context of what 先生 did, it's more efficient to put 先生 on the position of the subject of the sentence because you can inherit it from the previous context and omit it. e.g. 先生は、朝起きて学校へ行ったら、ジョンに質問された.

In addition, you can fix the perspective too. One of the major mistakes by learners in Japanese composition is translating "the boss told me" into 上司は話した, which indicates the act of speaking is done to the direction that goes away from the center (or origin) of your perspective. (Adding 私に doesn't cure the twist of perspective.) In this regard, passive voice can avoid that problem. i.e (私は)言われた

Regulation or tendency to perspective or animacy, which naruto refers to, is required for the sake of convention of frequent omission of the subject. You can understand a sentence with the subject omitted when it's fixed in advance.

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