#008: Passive / Passivo

The passive voice (la forma passiva) is a construction in which the direct object becomes the subject and the subject becomes the agent. The passive voice is used with transitive verbs (that is, verbs that take a direct object).  Intransitive verbs such as venire, sembrare, arrivare, dormire, etc. cannot be used passively because they do not take a direct object (complemento oggetto).

Let’s compare the two following sentences:

Active voice: John hit the ball.
Passive voice: The ball is hit by John.

In the active sentence, John is the subject (soggetto), and the ball is the direct object (complemento oggetto) – the receiver of the action (hitting). In the passive sentence, the ball becomes the subject, and John now becomes the agent.  In Italian the agent is always preceded by the preposition, da.  Note that all passive phrases need or have agents.

The Italian passive voice is formed exactly the same way as in English. The passive can be formed with essere or venire. The only caveat with venire is that it cannot be used passively with compound tenses.  Take note that the past participles in passive phrases must agree with the subject, not the agent!

Passive sentences in Italian follow this basic pattern below:

subject of the sentence + essere/venire participio passato + (da + person/agent)

Present/Presente:

The car is bought by Jane.
La macchina è comprata da Giovanna.
La macchina viene comprata da Giovanna.

Passato Prossimo (Only essere can be used passively with the passato prossimo!):

The car has been bought by Jane.
The car was bought by Jane.
La macchina è stata comprata da Giovanna.

Passato Remoto:

The car was bought by Jane.
La macchina venne comprata da Giovanna.
La macchina fu comprata da Giovanna.

Imperfect/Imperfetto:

The car was bought by Jane.
The car was being bought by Jane.

La macchina era comprata da Giovanna.
La macchina veniva comprata da Giovanna.

Remember, that the imperfect also has the meaning, “used to“:

The cheese used to be eaten by the mice until we bought a cat.
Il formaggio era mangiato dai topi finchè abbiamo comprato un gatto.

Trapassato Prossimo:

The car had been bought by Giovanna.
La macchina era stata comprata da Giovanna.

Future/Futuro:

The car will be bought by Jane.
La macchina sarà comprata da Giovanna.
La macchina verrà comprata da Giovanna.

Conditional/Condizionale:

The car would be bought by Jane.
La macchina sarebbe comprata da Giovanna.
La macchina verebbe comprata da Giovanna.

The passive can also be formed with andare + past participle, but this implies an obligation or necessity, and is synonymous with dovere essere + past participle (has to be, must be):

The bills must be paid.
I conti devono essere pagati.
I conti vanno pagati.

Venire can only be used passively with these tenses:

presente indicativo
presente congiuntivo
passato remoto
imperfetto
congiuntivo imperfetto
futuro semplice
condizionale