Guest Post: Passive Voice, Part Two

Egypt_by_pabretas

The Passive Voice: Part Two

by Anne Bell

In Part One, we looked at how the passive voice is formed. In Part Two, we’ll examine which verbs can be transformed into the passive and the most common uses for the passive.

Can the active voice always be transformed into the passive? Test it yourself with the following sentences:

  1. The Egyptians built the Pyramids.
  2. You must obey the rules.
  3. I slept until 11.
  4. Goldfish live in fresh water.

If you guessed that sentences 3 and 4 cannot be put into the passive voice, you are correct! Why not? The main verbs are not transitive, that is they don’t take direct objects. Rather, they take prepositional phrases as objects. No passive possible!

The first and second sentences do take direct objects and so can happily be transformed into the passive voice:

  1. The Pyramids were built by the Egyptians.
  2. The rules must be obeyed.

In Sentence 1, it makes sense to keep the original subject, or agent of the verb. We can retain this with the use of by. What about in Sentence 2? It’s not necessary to keep the subject/agent since it’s implied.

So why would you want to use the passive voice? These are a few common reasons:

  • When we don’t want to take responsibility for something:
    The problem will be dealt with soon.

Here we either don’t know or don’t want to say who’ll deal with the problem.

  • When we want to focus on an action, rather than who or what caused the action:
    The roof was damaged in the storm.

Here the concern is for the roof rather than the cause of the damage.

  • When we want to avoid vague subjects like someone, something, etc.:
    The form must be signed.
    Rather than, Someone must sign the form.

The passive voice also has a special role in academic (particularly scientific) writing and news. Compare the following:

  • The results of the experiment are given in Table 2.
  • We, the researchers, give the results of the experiment in Table 2.

Since readers already know that “the researchers” are the agents of most verbs in an academic paper, it is not necessary to continually mention them. Using the passive also serves to move the objects of study into the subject position, giving them topic status. And, as is expected in much of academic culture, the passive helps to give an air of objectivity.

In the news, the agents can often be guessed, as in the following:

  • The suspect was arrested shortly after midnight.

Why mention the police when it is so obvious who did the arresting? Omitting the agent not only shifts attention to the object of the action, but helps keep news writing concise and focused on newsworthy objects.

We’ve gone over how to form the passive voice, which verbs can form the passive, and some of the main uses for the passive. Now you’re ready to give your verbs voice!

~~~

Reference: Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Susan Conrad, Geoffrey Leech Douglas Biber (2002).


Anne-bioAnne is a passionate applied linguist with a decade of language instruction under her belt. She enjoys making the complex simple and the arcane accessible.

You can connect with Anne by email, or visit her blog. You can also check out her LinkedIn profile and her about me page.


Pyramids image credit: pabretas @ deviantART

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7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Passive Voice, Part Two

  1. Wonderful set of posts. These are great for clarifying. I have read that in writing fiction for instance, it’s better to use active verbs because it makes the writing more powerful and dynamic. Would you agree with this?

    1. I’m interested to hear Anne’s response to this too.

      Personally, I think active voice is generally better in fiction, for the reasons you mentioned. But I also think it’s important to know when and why you should use passive voice, because sometimes writers avoid using it even when it’s the right choice.

  2. Good question, EagleAye. I’m not an expert on fiction writing, but it would follow that if the passive voice contributes to a more academic or journalistic feel, then the active voice would be more suitable for most types of fiction for the reasons you mentioned. There seems to be a trend towards using the active voice amongst writers, both fiction and non. But at the end of the day, you’d probably want to make that decision based on stylistic considerations. And as Suzanne points out, sometimes the passive is simply the right choice: My mother bore me just after marrying. Eeek!

  3. I’m well aware of the active and passive voice and how to use them, but your explanation of when the passive voice is acceptable/better/necessary was really interesting and informative.You say the passive voice is often journalistic, but as high school journalism students (technically yearbook, but we follow journalism rules) we are told to write solely in the active voice. I suppose this is to avoid overuse of what is often seen as a “weaker” way to word things, and to make it simpler for us. And as you said, there seems to be a trend towards the active.
    As an editor and one of the few in the class truly passionate about writing and language in general, I’m glad to see that there are definitely situations that call for the passive. I think I usually know when to use it, and do so at my own discretion, so it distressed me when we were instructed to employ only the active voice. I make most of the (copy-related) decisions in the class and my writing isn’t questioned, so I do what I feel is correct and don’t follow rule anyway, but I’m glad to discover some of the purposes and reasoning behind it.

    Sorry, that was awfully long. Anyway, thank you!

    1. Thanks for your great comment! I’m always thrilled to meet like-minded people with a passion for editing and language.

      In my experience, people often say “you must only write in the active voice” – but don’t always know what that means. To be fair, grammar is often taught poorly in school (as I’m sure you can attest!), so people tend to stick to the rules they’ve heard most often.

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