Passive voice in English and Vietnamese – a contrastive analysis Student: Nguyễn Tuấn Anh

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Passive voice in English and Vietnamese – A contrastive analysis


Passive voice in English and Vietnamese – A contrastive analysis

Student: Nguyễn Tuấn Anh

Class: 4A07

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy


It goes without saying that grammar plays an integral part in learning English. It is all considered to be a solid foundation to develop language skills including reading, listening, speaking and writing. Among many grammatical points in English, passive voice stands out as one of the most popular, also the most confusing to the language learners. This problem is really serious towards the Vietnamese learners when they learn passive voice. Not only do they find it hard to use passive sentences in suitable contexts instead of using active voice but they have really big difficulty in language transference between English and Vietnamese language as well.

My paper has four main sections. The very first section - Theoretical framework - is systematically presented which provides detailed information about passive voice in English and Vietnamese. The second, namely Discussion, will deal with pointing out similarities and differences in terms of syntax and the functional use between these two languages. Lastly some implications and conclusions of teaching and learning passive voice will be suggested in the two last section – Implication. and Conclusion.

Theoretical framework


Voice, in terms of grammar, is the form of a verb that shows whether the subject of a sentence performs an action (the active voice) or is affected by it (passive voice) (Hornby, 2005).

More specifically, passive voice is the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb (Farlex, Inc., 2010).

A passive sentence is one that reflects the above-mentioned feature of passive voice.

Take this following as an example ‘All the assignments were done by Kevin.’ The recipient ‘assignments’ is denoted and emphasized by the verb ‘do’, not the agent ‘Kevin’; therefore, this is a passive sentence.

Passive voice in English language


It can be said that passive voice is one of the most popular grammatical points in English. Thus, there are structures corresponding to the twelve tenses in English.

Basic structure:

Be + past participle ( p.p) (+ by + agent)

Passive voice in the twelve tenses:

1. Simple present: am/is/are + p.p (+by + agent)

EX: The door is locked.

2. Present progressive: am/is/are + being + p.p (+by +agent)

EX: The door is being locked.

3. Present perfect: have/has +been + p.p (+by + agent)

EX: The door has been locked.

4. Present perfect progressive: have/has + been + being + p.p (+ by +agent)

EX: The door has been being locked.

5. Simple past: was/were + p.p (+by +agent)

EX: The door was locked.

6. Past progressive: was/were + being + p.p (+by +agent)

EX: The door was being locked.

7. Past perfect: had + been + p.p (+by + agent)

EX: The door had been locked.

8. Past perfect progressive: had +been + being + p.p (+by +agent)

EX: The door had been being locked.

9. Simple future: will + be + p.p (+by + agent)

EX: The door will be locked.

10. Future progressive: will + be + being + p.p (+ by + agent)

EX: The door will be being locked.

11. Future perfect: will + have + been + p.p (+ by + agent)

EX: The door will have been locked.

12. Future perfect progressive: will + have + been + being + p.p (+ by + agent)

EX: The door will have been being locked.

In addition to basic structures mentioned above, native English speakers also manipulate some special passive constructions to convey their ideas in daily life:

Constructions with reporting verbs (think, consider, report, order, believe, say and so forth): It + be + p.p of reporting verbs + that clause/ to infinitive.

EX: It is said that Joe Bastianich owns one of the best restaurants in Italy.

Double passive: This is often included in one clause.

EX: The birthday cake was ordered to be delivered to the house on Baker Street.

Besides, this grammatical point can also appear in two or more clauses.

EX: The criminal who is most wanted was captured yesterday.

Constructions with GET and BECOME:

GET + p.p : This structure is often used in spoken English instead of be + p.p in passive constructions to describe happenings that cause surprises, unpleasantness or a change in status or condition.

EX: Hundreds of people got killed in the derailment of the train last night.

BECOME + p.p: this structure is often used to show the increase in the level of the happenings.

EX: Sherlock Holmes has become known through the series of novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Causative-passive form with HAVE/GET

HAVE/ GET something + p.p (+by+agent): We use this structure to present actions we arrange for other people to do for us.

EX: I have/get my bicycle repaired (by my father) yesterday.


In English, the popularity of passive voice can be explained by its functional usage, emphasizing the recipient. In other words, passive constructions are mainly employed so as to underscore the significance of the goal of the actions or the result of the events mentioned. For instance, the home team was defeated by the away team in a friendly match last Sunday (passive construction is used in this sentence in order to put emphasis on the defeat of the home team).

There are, furthermore, other reasons for using passive voice in English:

* In fact, only about 20% of passive sentences mention the agent (Richard & Guy, 1999, p. 34). In fact in many cases the performer of the action is not important, not known or it is so obvious, widely known in that it is so popular. For instance, English is spoken all over the world, in this sentence; it goes without saying that the agents are the people from around the world. Another instance is he was killed in his room, the doer of the action kill in this sentence not stated because no one knows who the killer is.

* The speaker wants to stress the information provided in the sentence. Moreover, we use passive in order not to start with too long phases as subjects in sentences so that the naturalness of the sentences are lucidly expressed. Take We were surprised by the number of people trying to leave the city for the long weekend. as an example. The naturalness of this sentence is undoubtedly better than The number of people trying to leave the city for the long weekend surprises us.

* Passive construction is also used to produce a formal style. For instance, the sentence All the guests are required to show their invitation cards to the bodyguards.

Passive voice in Vietnamese language

Much controversy has still existed as to whether there is passive voice as a grammatical point in Vietnamese language or not. Up till now Vietnamese linguists have not come to any agreement upon this issue. As Nguyễn. H. C (2009, September) said:

There exist different views on passive sentences in Vietnamese.  Some researchers claim that the Vietnamese language does not have passive voice, so does not have passive sentences.  Other researchers argue that Vietnamese may not have passive voice as a morphological category, it still have passive sentences as syntactic constructions. (p. 107)

Passive voice in Vietnamese is really an extensive linguistic phenomenon, which is more than the use of bị and được and several basic structures to convey ideas. Thus, in my paper, I don’t dig deep into whether passive voice in Vietnamese language is practically existent or not. I just present some fundamental knowledge of passive voice in Vietnamese, mainly on the basis of syntactic sides.


In Vietnamese, passive constructions are mainly marked with two words được and bị .

Basic structure: được/bị + verb ( in its original form)

EX: Hôm qua Peter bị khiển trách. (Yesterday Peter was reprimanded.)

Tôi được tặng một cuốn từ điển. (I was given a dictionary.)

Được and bị, however, have different meanings in terms of semantics – that is – they are used with different intentions in different situations.

Passive sentences with được give us a positive impression on the situation. Let’s take ‘Tôi được tặng một cuốn từ điển.’ as an example, which means that the dictionary was quite a wonderful gift I was given. In contrast, bị often poses a negative meaning upon a passive sentence. It seems that the recipient was forced to do something they disliked or confronted with unpleasant situations. For instance, ‘Hôm qua Peter bị khiển trách’. It’s clearly seen that being reprimanded was his unpleasant experience yesterday.

However, not all the passive sentences in Vietnamese language are marked with bị and được. Some cases are also considered as passive sentences with the absence of these two words. Take these following sentences as examples. ‘Giày của bạn chà bóng quá.’ (Your shoes are well-polished.), or ‘Cô ta sinh ở đâu?’ (Where were she born?).


Passive voice in Vietnamese has quite limited scope in daily lives. It is only employed when the speaker or the writer really wants to place emphasis on the outcomes or consequences, usually bad ones, of the happenings. For example, Hàng nghìn gia cầm nhiễm bệnh đã bị tiêu hủy sau đợt bùng phát cúm gia cầm.(Thousands of infected poultries have been killed after the outbreak of bird flu.). Clearly enough, the emphasis is put on the bad consequence hàng nghìn gia cầm nhiễm bệnh. Moreover, passive sentences are also used when the identity of the agent is unknown to us. In the sentence the dictionary was torn down, no one really knows who caused this.


In terms of structural sides, passive voice in English is completely different from that in Vietnamese. In English, passive voice requires morphological changes of the verbs in the sentence. For example, Mr. Brown is nicknamed Mr. Ghastly by his students. (be must be changed into is to fit with the tense of the context and nickname be changed into p.p : nicknamed). But in Vietnamese, the verb forms remain unchanged. Passive voice is usually marked with bị or được only. For example, Tôi bị đánh đòn. (bị is added to the sentence only to mark the appearance of passive form, not to draw people’s attention of the tenses, while the form of the verb đánh đòn remains unchanged. This difference is attributed to different language styles and families these two languages belong to. English is of Indo-European and inflectional language, which means that it tends to change their forms to perform certain grammatical function, while Vietnamese is of Austro-Asiatic and non-inflectional one, that is, morphological changes are not needed to showcase grammatical features. This also much contributes to controversy in the existence of passive voice in Vietnamese language.

Nevertheless, English and Vietnamese languages also share some similarities in terms of functional use. When the speaker or the writer wants to highlight the result, to avoid mentioning the agents for some sensitive reasons or to show no identity of the agents (Refer to examples presented above in the Theoretical framework). But in daily lives, Vietnamese people usually prefer active voice in lieu of passive voice whereas English people tend to employ passive voice a lot more than Vietnamese do. This habit invisibly raises an awful a lot problems related to language transference between English and Vietnamese. Naturalness and appropriateness will not be ensured any more when Vietnamese learners translate the passive sentences word by word, especially some special passive constructions. Let’s take Mary was given a bunch of flowers by her boyfriend on her birthday. If a Vietnamese learner translates this sentence into Mary được tặng một bó hoa bởi bạn trai cô ta nhân ngày sinh nhật, it sounds unnatural and even weird in Vietnamese language. It’s better to be Nhân ngày sinh nhật bạn trai Mary tặng cô ta một bó hoa. Clearly enough, translation problems lie in the habit and the frequency of using passive voice in these two languages, and the Vietnamese’s word-by-word language transference as well.

As for teaching passive voice, due to many differences discussed above, teachers of English should pay particular attention to the passive-voice translation work. They should guide the students to avoid word-by-word translation, especially with some special passive constructions. Besides the choice of được and bị must be given careful thought in the English-Vietnamese translation process. It’s advisable that teachers have model translation for each cases of passive voice to facilitate students in the long run.

To Vietnamese learners, they should study not only the structures but also the functional use of passive voice so as to use it more effectively. Also, the differences in passive voice in two languages should be considered as a key to avoiding word-by-word translation and having natural passive-voice translation in the target language.

To recap, although the way passive constructions in Vietnamese and English are expressed differently, it is a grammatical point that plays a critical role in forming the diversity of each language. The most problematic thing that most teachers as well as learners encounter is the translation of passive-meaning sentences into the other language. So, after all the theoretical presentation, contrasting and comparing, I hold out much hope that my paper will prove itself to be quite useful in teaching, learning and translating passive sentences. Furthermore, it is said that language mastery requires not only the structural accuracy but also the appropriateness and naturalness in real-life communication. Therefore, through my paper, I do wish to raise people’s awareness of combining structural and functional use of passive voice in both English and Vietnamese to enhance their language skills. Lastly, it is expected that this paper will set the stage for further study of passive voice in both English and Vietnamese language.


Nguyen, H. C. (2009, September). Vietnamese passive sentences from a

typological perspective. Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguitics

Society, 2(7), 107-118. Retrieved December 28, 2010, from

Passive voice. (2010). Farlex, Inc. Retrieved

December 24, 2010, from

Richard, S., & Guy, W. (1999). Grammar and Vocabulary for Cambridge

Advanced and Proficiency with key. England, Pearson Longman.

Voice. (2005). In Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of of Current English

(p. 1708, 7th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
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