Spanish Passive Voice Explained
A series of articles explaining the different forms of passive voice in Spanish and when it is appropriate to use them.
Passive voice is sort of a mandatory landmark in every language learner’s journey through the linguistic maze. And, although not all languages have a proper passive voice construction, there’s always a way to manufacture an impersonal construction. Luckily in Spanish (and in English as well) we have several and very different structures that can be called “passive voice structures” each having a different use and a slightly different meaning.
I will also say that if you’re an intermediate or upper-intermediate student of Spanish, well, you should already dominate some kind of passive construction, especially if your native language is also a Romance language. That being said, I would like to make clear that you can actually survive in the Hispanic world without making use of passive structures, either by replacing the subject by “alguien” or by using one of the impersonal constructions I will mention later on. But if your goal is more than just surviving, you should seriously consider learning the passive voice and practising it until you master it.
In this series of articles I’m going to explain you the various uses, structures and meanings of Spanish passive voice with as much detail as possible. There will also be a short summary in each article in case you just want a quick and simple explanation, but if you’re hungry for learning, take a few more minutes to check the entire explanation on passive voice.
I will also use a bunch of linguistic jargon such as “verbal periphrasis”, “passive agent”, “thematic θ role”, which I will explain briefly so you can follow up the explanations. You can also check more thorough explanations if you follow the link to other blog entries.
The types of passive constructions we’ll be analysing are: periphrastic passive construction, pasiva refleja, construcciones medias and impersonal constructions.
But, first thing first…
What do we actually mean by passive construction?
A passive construction can be defined as a type of sentence in which the subject is not performing an action on an object, but rather suffering the action expressed by the main verb. So, let’s focus on this sentence:
“Las placas en circulación no serán renovadas, aclaró el gobierno mexicano”
Las placas en circulación are suffering the action of not being renewed. Although las placas en circulación are the subject of the sentence, they are not actually performing any action. The active equivalent of this sentence would be:
“El gobierno mexicano no renovará las placas en circulación, aclaró el gobierno mexicano”
As repetitive as it may sound, this is the result of turning a passive sentence into an active one.
Today, we are going to learn about:
Periphrastic Passive Construction
This is the more defiant sounding construction in Spanish grammar, but it leads to a very simple and widely known passive construction. This construction is usually really simple to learn for English native speakers since it resembles the English passive construction to a great extent; the elements are practically the same and it is widely use in very similar contexts.
Short explanation: this passive construction is often used in journalistic contexts or in general written contexts, being rare in spoken discourse where the reflexive passive is more common. This passive construction involves changes in the subject and object of the verb, which assigns the thematic roles of agent and theme respectively. Thus, the subject becomes an active theme and the “por” adjunct a passive agent. The periphrasis consists of the verb “ser” featuring number and person agreement with the subject and the matrix content verb in its past participle form featuring number and gender agreement with the subject as well.
But, what the heck does periphrasis mean? The Atlas de Gramática, hablar y escribir bien defines a verbal periphrasis as a kind of “verbal meeting.” In this situation, two verbs get together to form another meaning as if they were a single verb, yet remaining different. One of these verbs, known as auxiliary verb, is conjugated and, in the case of the Spanish periphrastic passive construction, this verb has no meaning, being used only to indicate tense, aspect and voice. The other verb, known as main verb, is not conjugated but transformed into a gerund, infinitive or participle.
I said earlier that the periphrastic passive constructions in Spanish and in English were pretty much similar, well, check this example an see it by yourself:
We have the same elements in the same order:
The subject being a passive object: las reformas políticas; the political reforms.
The verb “to be” functioning as a conjugated auxiliary verb: fueron; were.
A main verb in its past participle form expressing the meaning of the action: llevadas a cabo; carried out.
An adjunct containing the passive agent: el gobierno de turno; the current government.
There are evident differences that are related the nature of each language. For example, Spanish features number and gender agreement between nouns and their corresponding adjectives, therefore, since the past participle verb acts as an adjective, it will agree in gender and number with the subject in this case:
Las reformas → llevadas
Also, take into account that it’s not possible to create passive sentences using the indirect object as subject. This is a frequent zone of conflict for English natives since this form is very productive in English when we want to focalise the indirect object. So, let’s take for example the following sentence:
La Universidad le entregó una condecoración al alumno esta semana.
The University gave an award to the student this week.
In this case there’s only one passive sentence that we can create in Spanish (with the direct object as subject), but two in English (with either the indirect or the direct objects as subjects of the passive sentence). The result would be:
Una condecoración fue entregada por la Universidad esta semana al alumno.
An award was given to the student this week by the University.
The student was given an award this week by the University.
Therefore, due to the ungrammaticality shown above, we would have move the indirect object to the front of the passive construction, thus focalising it. In this case, however, the noun phrase remains as indirect object, not as subject:
Al alumno le fue dada una condecoración esta semana.
Actions, states, conditions and so on…
In order to have a proper passive construction the semantic content of the verb (ie. Its meaning) must indicate an action in the broad sense. In Spanish we cannot create passive constructions with states or conditions; an example of this are psichological states like pensar, alucinar, delirar, soñar and so on. So, in Spanish a sentence like the following needs to be restructured in Spanish:
John was thought to be the best guitarist in town.
Sadly for John, he won’t be able to use word-by-word translation in this case without violating Spanish grammar. It is often said that in order to have an action verb, an agent is needed, ie. a person or entity actually causing the action to happen.
Let’s go back to the example of pensar; can we really say that someone causes himself to think? At least in the usual sense of the word pensar , this is not the case. Well yes, we sometimes say things like Su forma de llevar a cabo las cosas me hizo pensar que un mundo mejor era posible. But this is a different use of the verb pensar or the periphrasis hacer pensar, which is closer to influenciar. These subjects are said to be experiencers rather than agents. You should take this into account if you think it’s helpful.
Also remember that the periphrastic passive in Spanish is always made with the verb ser and never with the verb estar (which indicates an state). Compare these pairs of sentences:
La bala fue atascada en la arteria durante la operación.
La bala estuvo atascada en la arteria durante la operación.
Los primeros asentamientos humanos fueron establecidos en la mesopotamia.
Los primeros asentamientos humanos estuvieron establecidos en la mesopotamia.
Las medallas olímpicas eran fabricadas a partir de materiales muy costosos.
Las medallas olímpicas estaban fabricadas a partir de materiales muy costosos.
So, what do I do if I want to make a passive construction with a psychological or state verb? Is it impossible? Do I have to resort to active voice instead?
Not at all, it is neither impossible nor complicated. You just have to use a different Spanish passive form. This form is usually known as reflexive passive construction or pasiva con se in Spanish. I will talk about it in the next article about Spanish passive constructions.
So far so good. This has been an introduction to passive voice. Remember to let me know if you have any doubt or if you have any contribution to make.