The passive voice is much less common in Spanish than in English. Spanish has three types of ways to express these types of sentences, although only two of the three are truly considered passive voice.
Type 1 – Ser
In two sentences with the same implicit meaning, the person doing the action (the agent) is present in the active voice but hidden in the passive voice.
- Los padres fundadores, que incluyeron Thomas Jefferson y George Washington, establecieron EE.UU en 1776.
The founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson y George Washington founded the United States in 1776.
- EE.UU fue establecido en 1776.
The United States was founded in 1776.
The first sentence is the standard active voice sentence. A group of men (yes, just men) founded the United States in 1776. The second sentence emphasizes the date when the US was founded and not the founding fathers; the agent doing the action is missing in the passive voice sentence.
The formula for this first passive voice sentence structure is:
ser + past participle
In some cases, the agent is still in the sentence as in the following example:
- El padre castigó su hija.
The father punished his daughter.
- La hija fue castigada por su padre.
The daughter was punished by her father.
In the passive version of the sentence, the father is still listed as the agent but preceded by the preposition por.
In other cases, the agent is not listed in the passive version of the sentence.
- Juan lavó el coche.
Juan washed the car.
- El coche fue lavado.
The car was washed.
Type 2 – Estar
Estar and the passive voice is not a true passive voice but a final condition.
- El coche estaba limpio.
The car was clean.
- El coche está limpio por / gracias a Juan.
The car is clean because of Juan.
The same final condition of a clean car occurs in both these sentences. The second sentence lists the agent Juan, who cleaned the car. But neither sentence indicates the time the car was cleaned other than it had occurred in the past.
In the United States, we like to anthropomorphize animals and physical objects. But an action from the perspective of a language needs a human agent.
- El coche tocó el claxón al camión. (en America Latina)
The car honked the horn at the truck.
This sentence is weak writing in both English and in Spanish. Cars do not honk their horns, drivers honk their horns.
- El conductor tocó la bocina al camión. (en España)
The driver honked the horn at the truck.
To move this sentence into the passive voice, the sentence also uses estar as it describes a condition – honked.
- La bocina estuvo tocando al camión.
The horn was honked at the truck.
Natural forces are also not grammatical agents. Both of these types of sentences are also final conditions using the word estar.
- La flor está florecida.
The flower is in bloom.
- El agua estuvo hirviendo.
The water was boiling.
*Both flowers and boiling water are natural conditions but are not agents in a sentence.
Estar and the passive voice occurs much more often in Spanish than the true passive voice using ser.
Type 3 – Passive Se
The agent can also be omitted using the pronoun se. In this version of the passive voice, the se replaces the specific person or group of people who do exist.
- Se habla Español.
Spanish is spoken here. (The specific people in this facility).
- Se ayuda a los sin techo.
The homeless are helped. (The specific people in this facility).
The passive se is similar but different to the impersonal se. The impersonal se refers to people in general not a specific group of people.
- ¿Como se dice “confused” in Español?
How do you say confused in Spanish? (Refers to anyone)
- Se habla chino en Singapur.
They speak Chinese in Singapore. (Refers to people in general in Singapore)
Three types of passive voice are possible in Spanish. The most common is describing a condition of an object using estar.