Running head: passive voice in english and vietnamese

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Passive Voice in English and Vietnamese

A Contrastive Analysis

Đỗ Thị Thúy Hiếu

University Of Education

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

December 30 2011


In a globalization era, language has become more and more important. Obviously, grammar plays a significant role in learning language. As we know, there are variant kinds of grammar in English such as tense, reported speech, conditional sentence….Among these ones, passive voice stands out as a fundamental popular part and also causes a lot of confusion for learners.

Passive voice is a basic grammar in English and there are many differences comparing with Vietnamese passive voice. That causes some common mistakes and unnaturalness in translation for Vietnamese learners of English. Aim at helping learners overcome some obstacles in translating, I have done a research of passive voice in English and Vietnamese.

There are four main sections in my paper. The very first section is the general description which provides theory and simple example of passive voice. Some similarities and differences are included in the second part. Next, the third part is giving some common mistakes that Vietnamese students usually make in creating language transference between English and Vietnamese passive voice and some suggestions for a better. Last one is some implication.

Theoretical Background


Passive voice is a grammatical point that indicates the subject of the verb receiving the action. Take the sentence “Tom was caught by the police” as an example. The subject “Tom” receives the action described by the verb “catch”.

More specifically, for example “Her purse was stolen by a thief yesterday”. The recipient “her purse” is indicated and emphasized by the word “steal”, and the word “her purse” receives the action described by the verb “steal”, therefore this is a passive voice.

Passive Voice in English

Usage. It goes without saying that passive voice is the basic and common grammatical point in English. Moreover, English people tend to use it more often. Thus, there are some possible cases in which passive voice is generally used:

The target of the action gets emphasis to the position of the subject. Take “David embraced Amy” as an example. Changing into passive, it becomes “Amy was embraced by David”. Rather, Amy is just the recipient of David action. Obviously, we can see that the focus of this action has changed from David to Amy.

Using passive voice, It is easy to leave out the person or thing doing the action or when you do not sure who do the action. For instance: “The car is stolen yesterday”. In this sentence, the writer does not know who does this action for sure.

Some researchers point out that politicians often intentionally use passive voice to obscure the idea of who is the doer of the action. Some famous sayings such as “mistake was made” of Ronald Reagan, “Bombs were dropped”, “Shots were fired”. Sometimes the passive voice is more polite than active voice when the doer is left out as in the sentence “A big mistake was made”.

Form of passive.

Subject + finite form of to be+ pp (past participle) + (by+ agent)

This is just the basic form. Here are passive structures corresponding to 12 tenses in English

1. Simple Present: am/is/are + Past Participle (P.P)

Ex: English is spoken here.

2. Simple Present Continuous am/is/are + being + P.P

Ex: English is being spoken here.

3. Simple Past was/were + P.P

Ex: English was spoken here.

4. Past Continuous was/were + being + P.P

Ex: English was being spoken here.

5. Present Perfect has/have + been + P.P

Ex: English has been spoken here.

6. Present Perfect Continuous has/have + been+ being + P.P

Ex: English has been being spoken here.

7. Past Perfect had + been + P.P

Ex: English had been spoken here.

8. Past Perfect Continuous had + been + being + P.P

Ex: English had been being spoken here.

9. Simple Future will + be + P.P

Ex: English will be spoken here.

10. Future Continuous will + be + being + P.P

Ex: English will be being spoken here.

11. Future Perfect will + have + been + P.P

Ex: English will have been spoken here.

12. Future Perfect Continuous will + have+ been + being + P.P

Ex: English will have been being spoken here.

Besides some structures above, English people also use some other grammatical points in passive voice to convey their ideas:

The verb “get” is used in passive voice – meaning sentence instead of “be” in some cases in the example “the dog got hit by a car yesterday”.

“Have”, “get” in causative passive form: have/get + something + pp

Ex: John gets his car fixed

They get their house painted green

Double passive: there are two passive voice parts in a sentence.

Ex: The project is expected to be finished in the next two years.

Passive voice with reporting verbs (consider, believe, think, prove…..): This kind of passive usually used in formal text such as newspaper, description or scientific processes or when the speaker want to talk about what is general said

Ex: John is considered as the best student in his class or It is considered that he is the best student in his class.

Passive Voice in Vietnamese

Usage. There is some controversy whether passive voice exists in Vietnamese or not. Hence, passive voice is a controversial grammatical matter. Some researchers claim that Vietnamese does not have passive voice because the verb does not change its form. Others argue that passive voice in Vietnamese may not have as a morphological category, however It can be considered as passive voice basing on the structure of “bị” and “được” combine with finite verb.

In reality, Vietnamese people seldom use passive voice in everyday conversations. However, some writers still prefer to use passive voice when the writer or speaker wants to emphasize to the number or result: “Hàng trăm trường hợp nhiễm cúm đã được phát hiện trong tuần qua” (Hundreds of infected influenza was detected last week).In this sentence, the emphasis is “hundreds of infected influenza”. One more instance of using passive voice is when the speaker does not know who does the action, in “hôm qua nhà nó bị trộm” (Last night, his house was stolen). Passive-meaning sentences usually appear in scientific or technical article. For example: Một hành tinh mới đã được phát hiện trong hệ mặt trời. (A new planet has been found out in the solar system). Last, Vietnamese people also prefer to use passive – meaning sentence when they avoid mentioning the doer for example: Cách ăn mặc của cô ấy bị chỉ trích ( Her clothes was criticized).


Basic structure: bị / được + verb

Ex: Con được tặng một món quà sinh nhật (I was given a birthday present)

Nó bị phạt (He is punished)

Ví của tôi bị mất (My wallet was lost)

One more thing we should take a close look on is the meaning of “bị” and “được” in Vietnamese. In most cases, “được” brings a positive meaning or receives something pleasant as in the example “ Bài tập đã được làm xong” (the exercise was finished). It means the result is a good job and the speaker feels satisfied with this one. In contrast, let’s take another example: “nó bị cô giáo phạt” (He was punished by his teacher”. In this sentence, the fact being punished by teacher is an unexpected aspect which is marked with the word “được.

In Vietnamese passive voice, in some cases, sentences which contain “bị” and được” but does not function as a passive – meaning sentence, for example “cô hơi bị xinh đấy” or “giọt nước hơi bị trong đấy”. Nonetheless, Vietnamese still has some kinds of passive – meaning sentences which are not marked with “bị” or “được”. For instance, “ngôi nhà này xây cách đây lâu rồi” (the house was built long time ago) or “bạn được sinh ra ở đâu” (where was you born?).

One more thing we should take into consideration when researching Vietnamese passive – voice s is that sometimes sentences contain “bi” and được” but does not function as a passive – meaning sentence. For example “cô hơi bị xinh đấy” or “ giọt nước hơi bị trong đấy”. And learner should take this one into his consideration.

The Contrast in English and Vietnamese Passive Voice

Obviously, English has a clear passive voice in terms of morphological and syntactic aspect. On the other hand, in Vietnamese, there are many arguments about the existence of passive voice and “bị”,“được” sometimes are not considered as passive markers. In morphological aspect, English passive – meaning sentences are strict with morphological criteria and the verb has to change its form.

Ex: Tom is given a new comic book.

In Vietnamese, passive voice sentence simply often mark with “bị” “được”

Ex: Nam được cô giáo khen (Nam was appraised by the teacher)

About the frequency of using

According to some researchers, passive voice has a very important role in English, especially in some academic papers. Furthermore, English tend to use passive voice in their daily conversation than Vietnamese. On the contrary, using passive voice in Vietnamese is going to cause unnaturalness and sounds weird.

Language Family

English belongs to Indo – European language and is an inflectional language while Austro-Asiatic and non – inflectional are characteristics of Vietnamese.


The form of passive voice in English: be + past participle

In Vietnamese: bị /được + verb

Besides some differences mentioned above, English and Vietnamese also share some similarities. Both English and Vietnamese passive used to highlight action than the agent and passive voice is favored in newspapers or academic areas. However in daily conversation, Vietnamese do not usually use passive voice so unnaturalness and inappropriateness usually occur in translating from English into Vietnamese, especially translating word by word.

Some Common Mistakes and Suggestions for Better Translation

The most important thing a language learner should take a close look on is the difference in English and Vietnamese culture and to use passive voice in suitable context.

Another advice given by some linguistics, they say teacher should ask students drop “bị” and “được” in English Vietnamese translation. The most typical suggestions are:

Anh ấy bị mất hết tiền (He was lost all of his money) (1)

Xe bị hư (The car was broken down) (2)

The appropriate translation: (1) He lost all of his money

(2) The car broke down

The scope for “bị” and “được” is much larger than their use in passive voice sentences. Therefore, teacher should give students this note and ask student drop “bị” and được” and consider carefully whether these sentences are grammatical point.

Example: (1) Hàng hóa chở tới bằng xe (Goods drive by car)

(2) Nhà xây xong rồi (house has already built)

Proper translation: Goods are carried by car.

House has already been built.

In example (1) and (2), the learners should aware that the words “goods” and “house” can not carry the action.

In Vietnamese, active voice sounds natural than passive in most cases so learners should base on this to have a better translation. Example: Nam is expected to win the 1st prize in this contest ( Nam được mong đợi giành giải nhất trong cuộc thi này: unnatural). Naturally we can say: mọi người mong rằng Nam sẽ giành thứ hạng cao nhất trong cuộc thi này).

One of the best approaches to have a good translation from English into Vietnamese and vice versa that the learners should have a deep knowledge in their mother tongue first as well as a wide range of vocabulary in English as well as mater grammatical point. Moreover, students should be aware a passive – meaning sentence whether it carry a positive or negative meaning and adding “bị” or “được” appropriately. In some occasions, using “bị” and “được” can be acceptable depending on attitude of speaker:

Example: The book content has been changed

Nội dung của quyển sách đã được thay đổi (1’)

Nội dung của quyển sách đã bị thay đổi (2’)

(1’) or (2’) can be accepted relying on the context.

Implications to Teaching and Learning

Admittedly, studying language is a process which requires time as well as efforts. Due to so many differences above, teacher should help students aware of discrepancy in structure, use and functions of English and Vietnamese. In order to help students avoid translating word by word, teacher should help student have a through grasp of language skills, not only in the second language but also in their mother tongue.

Additionally, by pedagogical methods, teachers should help students recognize whether sentence brings a negative or positive meaning by giving example, sample translation, exercise... The main purpose of studying language is serving for life, learners should try use passive voice in real – life conversation and keep in mind the frequency in using passive voice in English and Vietnamese as well as some special cases. Basing on the differences in English and Vietnamese passive voice, students can produce more precise translation from English to Vietnamese and vice versa.

Last, with some comparisons above, students can have one more chance to review their knowledge in passive voice of both two languages – English and Vietnamese.


From a contrastive view point, this essay gives emphasis to English and Vietnamese passive voice in terms of usage and structure. And thus, point out some common mistakes students can encounter and some ways to correct them. Hopefully, this paper can be advantageous for teacher and students of English to draw a clearer picture in passive voice.


Con, N. H. (2009). Vietnamese Passive Sentences from a Typological Perspective. Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics , Vol 2, p.107 - p.120.

Hung, N. Q. (2007). Hướng dẫn kỹ thuật phiên dịch Anh-Việt, Việt

Anh. Ho Chi Minh: Tổng hợp thành phố Ho Chi Minh.

Hewings, M. (2005). Advanced Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maurice Waite, E. W. (1996). The Oxford Guide to English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

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