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The passive 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. The passive is the verb be + past participle. For example, "the pizza was eaten".

The agent of the verb can typically be expressed by using a by phrase, for example, "the pizza was eaten by John".

Its use in rhetoric or technical writing is sometimes disparaged, in part since it may serve to obfuscate responsibility for a particular action, e.g. Mistakes were made. vs. I made a mistake. Others regard this as simply one of the uses of the passive which may be used or not at the speakers discretion. (See "Opinions about the passive" below.)

Circumstances where the passive is used[edit]

Nevertheless there are circumstances where the passive is the more appropriate structure:

Where we deliberately wish to obscure the identity of the agent[edit]

When someone wishes to hide their responsibility for an act, instead of saying:

  • I lost the file; or
  • My staff made a mistake;

they might say:

  • The file was lost; or
  • Mistakes were made.

While some might have stylistic objections to such statements, there is no doubt that they are used, that they can be quite convenient, and that our students need to be aware of their use and potential.

Where the action is more important than the agent[edit]

There will be times where the action carried out will be more important than identity of the individual who carried out the action, or we simply don't know the identity of the person, so instead of saying:

  • Somebody opened the door;
  • Somebody stole the car;

we might say:

  • The door was opened;
  • The car was stolen.

When the agent is obvious[edit]

When everyone knows who or what does an action, we employ the passive to avoid stating the obvious. For instance, we would usually say

  • Vin Diesel has crashed his new Mustang and has been taken to hospital.

...rather than...

  • Vin Diesel has crashed his new Mustang and the emergency services have taken him to hospital.

Where we wish to avoid repeating the agent[edit]

There will be times where we have identified the agent in an opening statement and there is no necessity to continue repeating the agent in an active statement. In such cases concentrating on the actions by using the passive is a good way out.

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 (slightly exaggerated for effect, but "typical" of students' writing):

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

Opinions about the passive[edit]

The use of the passive seems to raise objections in some quarters and expressions of support in others.

Passive resistance[edit]

Some regard the passive as unnecessarily formal and object to its use in avoiding responsibility.

They argue that even on those occasions when the actor is irrelevant or implicit and may therefore seem an ideal opportunity to use the passive (The police investigated the matter and subsequently a man was arrested on Friday.), the use of an active structure makes for stylistic consistency: The police investigated the matter and arrested a man on Friday.

See also E-Prime in Wikipedia. E-Prime is a form of English in which the verb to be is forbidden with the goal of having clarity.

Passive support[edit]

Others raise no objections to the passive, seeing it as simply another mode of expression which students need to be aware of and able to use - and understand if necessary.

They would state that as long as it is used at appropriate times and in the appropriate register, it is as valid as any other structure.