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:
- The Egyptians built the Pyramids.
- You must obey the rules.
- I slept until 11.
- 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:
- The Pyramids were built by the Egyptians.
- 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).