The passive

The mystery of passive form, it’s uses, history and what it has in common with potential form explained.


The passive form is one of the conjugations we learn first and causes us many troubles since it is quite different from the one used in English. Therefore I wanted to introduce it (briefly) to make it easier to use.

If we want to know more about modern passive and potential we have to go back in time, to auxiliary verbs (verbs that cannot be used by themselves but have to be attached to other verbs) らゆ and ゆ used in the Nara period.

Originally, these auxiliaries expressed spontaneity (something is happening spontaneously, regardless of the will or effort of the speaker). If we think about it, for example, a modern example of this use, 聞こえる ‘to be audible’ has a nuance of ‘hearing something with no active effort’ (action happens by itself), in other words, ‘one cannot help, but hear something’. This ‘one cannot help, but by extension became ‘one cannot’ – the potential function, which originally was only used only in negative form. Only much later, did the Japanese start using it to express ‘one can’ meaning.

As for the passive function, it also evolved from ‘spontaneous’ usage. Action beyond one’s will was extended to actions done by others.

The last to emerge was the honorific function, which appeared during the later Heian period extension of the passive function. The logic here was simple, people of high status have things done for them by subordinates. Around that time also らゆ and ゆ were replaced with らる and る auxiliaries.

らる and る eventually evolved to modern potential and passive.

As we can see, both modern potential and passive have a common origin, this also explains why the forms are fairly similar.

If you are curious about spontaneous function, and verbs like 聞こえる vs 聞ける then you can read my other post.

In this article, I would like to focus on the modern functions of the passive form.

dictionary formpassive conjugation
見(み) る (ru verb/ichidan)られる
る (u verbs/godan)られる
歌 (うた)われる
歩(ある) かれる
話(はな) される
打(う) たれる
死 (し)なれる
飛 (と)ばれる
休(やす) まれる
泳(およ) がれる

Maybe, first let’s start with passive, as it is used in English, so-called direct passive.

When it is used a person or a thing that undergoes the action(called patient/target) becomes the subject (marked with が) of the sentence rather than a person or a thing(called “agent”) “doing” the verb (marked with に). It is used when we don’t know the agent, or it is not important, etc.

For example:

ソニーがこのスマホを作(つく)った。Sony made this smartphone. Active.

このカメラがソニーによって作られた。This camera was made by Sony. Passive.

In passive sentences, the doer of the action is expressed by に, によって or sometimes から.

Usually, によって is used instead of に when something is produced (for example with 作られる、書かれる) and also in formal language.

田中(たなか)さんによって書(か)かれた記事(きじ)を読(よ)みました。I read the article written by Mr. Tanaka.

弊社(へいしゃ)は専門家(せんもんか)によって選(えら)ばれた。Our company is chosen by professionals.

This usage of passive is not very common in speech and is more often used in writing.

から is used when some information or remark is given.


I was spoken to by a foreigner.

Another, more common use of passive is indirect passive, which has the most common with ‘spontaneous’ (cannot help but be) use. This is also called ‘suffering passive’ or ‘adverse passive’.

In this use, the action has an adverse (negative) effect on the person undergoing it. This usage is something that does not really exist in English. Unlike ‘direct passive it can be used with both transitive and intransitive verbs, and is not used with によって and から. The translation of such sentences can be simply the same as active ones, with ‘regrettably’ nuance added.


赤(あか)ん坊(ぼう)が泣(な)いた。The baby cried.

赤ん坊に泣かれた。The baby cried (and it had an adverse effect on me). I cannot help but be cried by the baby. The baby regrettably cried.

武田(たけだ)さんの妻(つま)が死(し)んだ。The wife of Mr. Takeda died.

武田さんは妻に死なれました。The wife of mr. Takeda died (and it had an adverse effect on him). The wife of mr. Takeda regrettably died.

雨(あめ)が降(ふ)りました。It rained.

雨に降られました。It rained (and it had an adverse effect on me – I got wet). It regrettably rained.

先生(せんせい)が私(わたし)を褒(ほ)めた。The teacher praised me.

先生に褒められちゃった。I was praised by the teacher. (and it had an adverse effect on me – for example, it was embarrassing)

Particle を MUST BE USED when the action happens to something one owns or part of one’s body.

バスの中(なか)でつま先(さき)を踏(ふ)まれた。(つま先が踏まれた is wrong)

Someone stepped on my toe in the bus.


My hand was bitten by a dog.


The last use is honorific use. I’ve noticed that it was fairly rarely introduced in textbooks. Unlike other uses, the form replaces the normal verb, but the particles are not changed (the sentence is identical to the active sentence)!

お客(きゃく)が出(で)ました。The guest left.

お客が出られました。The guest left.

こちらに勤(つと)めているでしょう? I suppose you are working here?

こちらに勤(つと)めていられるでしょう?I suppose you are working here?

Be careful! This form is used less often than other honorific patterns, like お〜になる, and it cannot be used with all verbs. It might be also confused with other uses. Usually, it is used in public speeches and announcements, when the speaker wants to sound ‘reserved’.

For example, when announcing a speaker:


Professor Yamashita recently returned from Korea…

If you are curious, you can follow me on Reddit to get info about new posts 🙂

I am mrnoone, and this was briefjapanese.





One response to “The passive”

  1. Stacey Avatar

    Thank you so much for this article! I think I’m getting the hang of it now:).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *