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Illustration passive voice in Arabic

How to build the passive voice in Arabic easily

The passive voice is rarely used in Arabic. So it is no coincidence that it is a popular source of errors, especially when translating. Reason enough to review the most important rules.

Published: July 9, 2024

The voice (المَبْني للمَجْهولِ) is rare in Arabic. This has to do with the nature of Arabic, which is very different from English in terms of the passive voice. But the good news is that the rules of the Arabic passive voice are actually quite simple.

Please note: If you are viewing this page on a mobile phone, the tables may be a little confusing. It is best to read this page on your desktop to get all the details.

Introduction

The passive voice in Arabic is quite sophisticated. Let's first check the characteristics of the passive voice:

  • The subject of active verbs performs the action: The student writes a book.
  • The subject of passive verbs (= object of active verbs) undergoes the action: The book was written.

Let's first check the DNA of the passive voice in English:

  • The English passive voice lets you mention the doer of an action (= actual subject).
  • We could say that the passive voice in English is more or less a stylistic variant of the active voice.

Now let's look at some finer points of the Arabic passive voice:

  • In Arabic, strictly speaking, we have to remove the doer of the action in the passive voice! The actual doer (= the subject of the active voice = الْفاعِلُ) simply disappears.
  • The passive voice in Arabic is generally only used for anonymous speech.
  • In Arabic, the direct object (مَفْعُولٌ بِهِ) becomes the “subject-like” of the passive verb (نائِبُ الْفاعِلِ). Note that نائِبُ الْفاعِلِ literally means the deputy of the doer.
  • Since we have to remove the actual doer of the action in the Arabic passive, we can go so far as to say that the active and passive versions are not the same. That's because the Arabic passive voice works entirely different.
  • If it is important to mention the performer of the action in Arabic, use a verb in the active voice (الْمَعْلُومُ) instead.

How can we add the doer of the action in the Arabic passive?

Let's take the sentence:

Most of the books were written at the hands of (= by) professors.

How could we translate that into Arabic? Can we add the doer of the action with a helping construction and enhance the original Arabic passive voice? Yes, that would be possible.

كُتِبَتْ مُعْظَمُ الْكُتُبِ عَلَى أَيْدِي الْأَساتِذَةِ

But this is a language import and should generally be avoided.

What we do here is: We literally translate the English by-part and add the actual acting person to the Arabic passive. There are other similar helping constructions such as مِنْ قِبَلِ which means by; on the part of; from the side of. Other phrases that would do the job are:

  • on the part of: مِنْ جانِبِ
  • at the hand of: عَلَى يَدِ
  • because of: بِسَبَبِ
  • by means of, through: بِواسِطةِ

We will now focus on how to form the passive voice in Arabic using verbs.


The construction of the Arabic passive voice

Let's first see some finesses of the Arabic passive voice.

ACTIVE VOICE: The subject is the one causing and the object is the one affected.Muhammad broke the window.كَسَرَ مُحَمَّدٌ الزُجاجةَ
PASSIVE VOICE: The subject is affected and the agent is implied, but we don't want to reveal the agent's identity.The window was broken.كُسِرَ الزَّجاجُ
ACTIVE VOICE with PASSIVE MEANING: The subject is the one affected, but the one who caused the action is not implied.The window broke.اِنْكَسَرَ الزَّجاجُ

GOOD TO KNOW! Theoretically, when talking about people, you can avoid the passive voice if you don't know who is doing the action or you don't want to name the subject. The trick is that in such situations you can also use the active voice with the singular subject الْمَرْءُ (= one) or the plural subject النّاسُ (= the people). However, the passive voice is more common to express impersonal information.

active voicepassive voice
It is said that…يَقُولُ الْمَرْءُ | النَّاسُيُقالُ إِنَّ
It is expected that…يَنْتَظِرُ الْمَرْءُ | النَّاسُيُنْتَظَرُ أَنْ

Vowel pattern of passive verbs in Arabic

The regular passive voice is easily built in Arabic using these two vowel patterns:

PAST TENSE: u – i – a

PRESENT TENSE: u – a – u

What's important:

  • In the ACTIVE voice, the vowel of the second root letter changes.
  • In the PASSIVE voice, it is always the same: “i” (كَسْرةٌ).

Sounds complicated? Let's put it all in a table.

ACTIVE VOICEPASSIVE VOICE



presentpastpresentpast
Iwas writtenكُتِبَيَفْعَُِلُفَعَِلَيُفْعَلُفُعِلَ
IIwas taughtدُرِّسَيُفَعِّلُفَعَّلَيُفَعَّلُفُعِّلَ
IIIwas viewedشُوهِدَيُفَاعِلُفاعَلَيُفاعَلُفُوعِلَ
IVwas sentأُرْسِلَيُفْعِلُأَفْعَلَيُفْعَلُأُفْعِلَ
Vwas avoidedتُجَنِّبَيَتَفَعَّلُتَفَعَّلَيُتَفَعَّلُتُفُعِّلَ
VIit was waivedتُنُوزِلَيَتَفَاعَلُتَفَاعَلَيُتَفَاعَلُتُفُوعِلَ
VIIit was stoppedاُنْقُطِعَيَنْفَعِلُاِنْفَعَلَتُنْفَعَلُاُنْفُعِلَ
VIIIwas accusedاُتُّهِمَيَفْتَعِلُاِفْتَعَلَيُفْتَعَلُاُفْتُعِلَ
IXيَفْعَلُّاِفْعَلَّ
Xwas importedاُسْتُورِدَيَسْتَفْعِلُاِسْتَفْعَلَيُسْتَفْعَلُاُسْتُفْعِلَ
Conjugation of Arabic verbs – passive voice

Conjugation of Arabic verbs in the passive voice - all stems
Conjugation of Arabic verbs in the passive voice – all stems

There are also verbs in Arabic that have a passive meaning in their active : mostly stem V (تَفَعَّلَ), less often VII (اِنْفَعَلَ) and verbs of the VIII (اِفْتَعَلَ) stems. Often, such verbs are connected with a preposition to indicate the actual doer after the verb.

But watch out! Verbs of these stems do not always convey a passive meaning! For example, the VII-verb انْدَفَعَ – يَنْدَفِعُ إِلَى denotes to rush to; to proceed blindly like in to rush to the front (اِنْدَفَعَ إِلَى المُقَدِّمةِ).

In many situations, however, these stems do express a passive or reflexive meaning in the active voice, which we will now look at.


Special features of Arabic stems

V-stem can express a passive meaning of the II-stem

stem V (ACTIVE voice – PASSIVE meaning)stem II (active voice)
to be influenced byتَأَثَّرَ – يَتَأَثَّرُ بِto influenceأَثَّرَ – يُؤَثِّرُ
to be postponedتَأَجَّلَ – يَتَأَجَّلُto postponeأَجَّلَ – يُؤَجِّلُ

The V-stem can express a passive and reflexive meaning of the II-stem

stem V (active – passive/reflexive mean.)stem II (active voice)
to change into/becomeتَحَوَّلَ – يَتَحَوَّلُ إِلَىto changeحَوَّلَ – يُحَوِّلُ
to be changedتَغَيَّرَ – يَتَغَيَّرُto changeغَيَّرَ – يُغَيِّرُ

VII-stem can express a passive meaning of the I- (or II-) stem

stem VII (active voice – passive meaning)stem I (active voice)
to be heldاِنْعَقَدَ – يَنْعَقِدُto holdعَقَدَ – يَعْقِدُ
to be cut offاِنْقَطَعَ – يَنْقَطِعُto cutقَطَعَ – يَقْطَعُ

The اِنْفَعَلَ verb form was described by early Arabic grammarians as one of the verbs of receptivity (أَفْعالُ الْمُطاوَعَةِ). A famous example: I broke it; therefore it broke. (كَسَرْتُهُ فَاِنْكَسَرَ). The اِنْفَعَلَ verb form may have been an old Semitic passive form that survived in Arabic and . The passive in Hebrew, for example, is expressed by the verb stem Nifal (נִפְעַל); Hebrew, by the way, has seven major verb stems.

Interestingly, in contemporary Arabic dialects, the passive voice is almost always expressed using the pattern اِنْفَعَلَ.

VIII-stem can express a passive meaning of the I- (or II-) stem

stem VIII (active voice – passive mean.)stem I (active voice)
to be characterizedاِتَّصَفَ – يَتَّصِفُ بِto describeوَصَفَ – يَصِفُ
to be shakenاِهْتَزَّ – يَهْتَزُّto shakeهَزَّ – يَهُزُّ

Verbs with weak or doubled root letters

Let's see how this goes.

Conjugation of Arabic verbs with weak or doubled root letters in the passive voice
Conjugation of Arabic verbs with weak or doubled root letters in the passive voice
typepresent – passivepast – passivepresent – activepast – active
doubled (الْمُضاعَف)يُسَدُّسُدَّيَسُدُّسَدَّto block
assimilated (الْمِثالُ)يُوجَدُوُجِدَيَجِدُوَجَدَto find
assimilated (الْمِثالُ)يوؤَسُيُئِسَيَيْئَسُيَئِسَto give up
hollow (الْأَجْوَفُ)يُقالُقِيلَيَقُولُقالَto say
hollow (الْأَجْوَفُ)يُبَاعُبِيعَيَبِيعُباعَto sell
defective (النّاقِصُ)يُدْعَىدُعِيَيَدْعُودَعَاto call
defective (النّاقِصُ)يُجْرَىجُرِيَيَجْرِيجَرَىto flow
irregularيُرَىرُئِيَيَرَىرَأَىto see
Conjugation of Arabic verbs in the passive voice
  • الْمُضاعَف : This pattern rarely causes any difficulties. Interestingly, though fairly rare, some verbs with doubled root letters are more common in the passive than in the active. One example is the VIII-verb اضْطَرَّ – يَضْطَرُّ which means to force. It is usually used in the passive (= to be forced): اُضْطُرَّ – يُضْطَرُّ.
  • الْمِثالُ : first root letter is و or ي. The و may get omitted; the ي stays always.
  • الْأَجْوَفُ : middle root letter is و or ي or ا. They almost always have an ا () in the middle. But watch out! Speaking of roots, the ا can never be part of the root, but is either ي or و. The good news is that hollow verbs are rarely used in the passive voice.
  • النّاقِصُ : the last root letter is و or ي or ا. Similar to الْأَجْوَفُ verbs, the ا (Aleph) is in its origin either و or ي (when you look at the root).

You don't really need to know much more about the passive voice in Arabic, especially since it is rarely used anyway and should therefore be used sparingly.

Do you have any questions about the passive voice in Arabic? Do you know any difficult sentences? Then share your thoughts in the comments section or send me a message.

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