Passive voice

From Teflpedia

The passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the patient of the action (i.e. that which is affected by the verb) is the subject of a clause.[1][2] It is often used in English, albeit less frequently than the alternative active voice.


Form[edit | edit source]

Types of passive clauses[edit | edit source]

The passive uses a verb (either be, get) + past participle. The agent of the verb can typically be expressed by using a agency prepositional phrase typically using by, though it’s also sometimes possible to use with. This is included in a long passive but omitted in a short passive:

Type Form Example short passive Example long passive
Be passive be + past participle The pizza was eaten. The pizza was eaten by John.
Get passive get + past participle The man got fired. The man got fired by the big boss.

Relationship to past participial adjectives[edit | edit source]

The sentence Jenny is scared can be analysed two ways:

  1. scared is a past participial adjective
  2. was scared is the use of the passive voice.

The use of a by clause would make it passive voice.

Expression of aspect[edit | edit source]

Aspects may be expressed:

  • The cake has been eaten (perfect aspect)
  • The cake is being eaten (continuous aspect)

Use of both perfect and continuous aspects in the passive voice is unusual:

  • ?The cake has been being eaten

Appropriacy[edit | edit source]

There are situations in which the passive is more appropriate than the active voice.

Generally speaking, be passives are considered more formal than get passives, and get passives are not typically used in formal writing.

The following situations are typical of passive voice usage; there may be some overlap between them:

Topic and comment[edit | edit source]

In a topic and comment sentence, the topic is the subject, and anaphorically refers backwards to something in the previous sentence. For example:

  • The community donated some food. It [the food] was distributed to those in need.

rather than:

  • The community donated some food. Those in need received it [the food].

The agent is not important[edit | edit source]

This is used particularly in scientific writing. For example;

  • Rats were euthanised on day 14 of the experiment.

rather than;

  • We euthanised the rats on day 14 of the experiment.

The agent is obvious[edit | edit source]

If the agent is obvious, it can be omitted. For example:

  • Trump was voted out of office

rather than

  • American voters voted Trump out of office.

The agent is unknown[edit | edit source]

If the specific identity of the agent is unknown, then the passive voice is often used. It’s often better to use the passive voice than use an active voice clause beginning someone or somebody.

For example:

  • My car was stolen.

rather than

  • Someone stole my car.

Avoiding repetition of the agent[edit | edit source]

Repetition is clumsy, especially if the agent is not the focus of the sentence. The following has three passives:

  • The police arrested a man suspected of burglary on Friday evening. He was taken to the police station, where he was held pending a trial.

Without the passives fairly typical of EFL student writing:

  • The police arrested a man on Friday evening. They suspected the man of burglary. The police took the man to the police station, where they held the man pending a trial.

Politician’s passive[edit | edit source]

The politician’s passive is a common rhetorical technique to obscure responsibility for mistakes, for example:

  • Mistakes were made.

Instead of saying:

  • I made mistakes.

Pedagogy[edit | edit source]

Generally, the passive voice is taught to EFL learners after the active voice, and at about pre-intermediate or intermediate level.

As with any target language, language presented to students should be exemplary of typical usage. For example, a sentence like Hamlet was written by Shakespeare is much more idiomatic than the chair was bitten by the dog.

A common exercise is passivisation.

Writing classes often disparage the passive voice, and this may be oversimplified or misunderstood to mean "never use the passive voice" or "use of the passive voice is always terrible". A better rule would be "inappropriate use of the passive voice is stylistically extremely clumsy".

EFL learners may use the preterite instead of the past participle for irregular verbs and say things such as *Harry Potter was wrote by J.K. Rowling. Such sentences are comprehensible.

References[edit | edit source]