Lesson #173: The Passive Voice in Gaskell’s ‘Cousin Phillis’

📗 Early as it was, every one had breakfasted, and my basin of bread and milk was put on the oven-top to await my coming down. Every one was gone about their work. The first to come into the house-place was Phillis with a basket of eggs. Faithful to my resolution, I asked – ‘What are those?’

She looked at me for a moment, and then said gravely -‘Potatoes!’

‘No! they are not,’ said I. ‘They are eggs. What do you mean by saying they are potatoes?’

‘What do you mean by asking me what they were, when they are plain to be seen?’ retorted she.

We were both getting a little angry with each other.

― Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phyllis (1864) 🧺

✍️ No doubt you have heard English language teachers speaking about the passive voice before – something they might explain as a sentence whose focus is on the object of the sentence (rather than the subject itself) and where the object continues to receive the action being done by the subject. Put differently,  the object appears as the subject in passive voice sentences.

Here is an example of two sentences that speak about the same topic but have different emphases:

✒️ ‘Phillis gathered the eggs.’

Active voice, where ‘Phillis’ is the subject, ‘gathered’ is the verb, and ‘the eggs’ are the object.

✒️ ‘The eggs were gathered by Phillis.’

Passive voice, where ‘the eggs’ are still the object, but are placed in such a way as to appear like the subject of the sentence.

👉 Generally speaking, we use the passive voice more often when writing or speaking in a formal context. This is because the passive voice helps to remove the subject of the sentence to a less conspicuous (less obvious) place in the sentence; so if we are speaking about ourselves, we are then able to sound less ‘self-centred’ by using the passive voice. 

💡 You can find one fairly widespread use of the passive voice in copyright notices. For example, ‘No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted without the prior written permission of the author.’ This is a more polite and less direct phrasing than simply saying, ‘You cannot reproduce, distribute or transmit any part of this publication without the author’s prior written permission.’

In our lesson today we will

1) learn how to recognise the passive tense,

2) see examples of it in action, taken from the pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella Cousin Phillis (1864), and

3) test what we have learned through six short exercises, with answers and explanations provided at the end.



So how do you identify the passive voice in texts?

Here are a few steps to help you:

✏️ Step #1: Just look out for the following construction – if you see it, you can be sure that the sentences is in the passive voice:

conjugated auxiliary verb [‘to be’, conjugated either as ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’ OR ‘to have’, conjugated either as ‘have’, ‘has’, ‘had’ OR modal verb forms such as ‘may be’ or ‘might be’+ past partiple of the verb [which would have been conjugated had the sentence been in the active voice]’

NOTE: You will not always have a past particple at hand. Sometimes an infinitive will be used instead, placed closer to the sentence’s beginning, as in: ‘The most suitable applicant to apply for the job was Anna.’

✏️ Step #2: Ask yourself, who is the action being done to? 

💡 TIP: It should be the first noun in the sentence.

✏️ Step #3: Look out for a preposition, such as ‘by’ or ‘to’. These won’t always be there, but sometimes their presence confirms that a sentence is in the passive voice. Remember our earlier example: ‘The eggs were gathered by Phillis.’


Here are a few lines from the above quotation, all of which are taken directly from Elizabeth Gaskell’s short classic, Cousin Phillis (1864). It is your chance to guess whether or not they are passive or active, and of course I provide some feedback as we go along.

📗 1) ‘… every one had breakfasted …’

📗 2) ‘ “No! they are not,” said I. “They are eggs.” …’

📗 3) ‘Faithful to my resolution, I asked …’

📗 4) ‘… my basin of bread and milk was put on the oven-top …’

📗 5)  ‘She looked at me for a moment …’

📗 6)  ‘The first to come into the house-place was Phillis.’


📗 1) ‘… every one had breakfasted …’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Yes, this is an example of the passive voice. If it were in the active voice, it would have been written as ‘They all breakfasted.’

📗 2) ‘”No! they are not,” said I. “They are eggs.” …’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

This is in the active voice: ‘they are not .. they are eggs’

📗 3) ‘Faithful to my resolution, I asked …’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

This is active; don’t be distracted by the preposition ‘to’ here, since it is refers to a noun (‘my resolution) that is part of a complement. It could all be rephrased in a way that makes its being in the active voice more obvious, for example: ‘I was faithful to my resolution, and I asked …’

📗 4) ‘… my basin of bread and milk was put on the oven-top …’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Passive voice. Although we don’t know who did the action (in other words, who the subject was), we have the object clearly identified and emphasised at the start of the sentence (‘my basin of bread and milk’) and also the construction of ‘auxiliary verb + past participle’: ‘was + put’.

📗 5)  ‘She looked at me for a moment …’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Active voice. ‘She’ is the subject, ‘me’ is the indirect object, and ‘looked’ is the verb conjugated in the simple past.

📗 6)  ‘The first to come into the house-place was Phillis.’ – Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Passive voice. Notice that the object (‘the first’ and ‘Phillis’, being the same entity) is identified quite early in the sentence. There also is the auxiliary ‘was’ and the infinitive ‘to come’ is placed before the auxiliary (if it had been a past particple, it would instead have followed the auxiliary).

I hope that this lesson has been helpful, and in closing I will leave you with one last tip.

👉 If you are not sure whether a sentence is passive or not, it may be helpful to try and rephrase the sentence either more actively or passively. This should clarify at once which voice the sentence has been constructed in. 

Hopefully you are now able to use the passive voice with more confidence, especially in your polite conversations or written communications!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)