Passive Voice

Definition

The passive voice is a type of grammatical voice in which the subject is acted upon by the verb. In passive-voice sentences, the subject is the receiver of the action (i.e., what would be the direct object in an active-voice sentence). For example:
  • The concert was attended by many young people.” (The subject the concert receives the action of attended.)
  • The necklace is being made by a child.” (The subject the necklace receives the action of being made.)
Passive-voice verbs are always preceded by the auxiliary verb be and are in their past participle forms. While the receiver of the action comes before the verb, the person or thing performing the action (known as the agent) comes after the verb and is preceded by the preposition by to form a prepositional phrase. For example:
  • The lights were turned off by the janitor.” (The lights is the subject, but the janitor performs the action turned off.)
  • Final exams will be taken by students on Friday.” (Final exams is the subject, but students performs the action taken.)
  • Letters to Santa are sent by children every year.” (Letters to Santa is the subject, but children performs the action sent.)

Converting the active voice into the passive voice

You may only convert a sentence from the active voice into the passive voice if there is a direct object. As we’ve seen, this direct object becomes the subject in the passive voice. For example:
  • A high school track and field star won the race.” (active voice)
  • The race was won by a high school track and field star.” (passive voice)
  • Local businesses are handing out pamphlets near the mall.” (active voice)
  • Pamphlets are being handed out by local businesses near the mall.” (passive voice)
If an active-voice sentences does not contain a direct object, it cannot be converted into the passive voice, as the sentence will lack coherency without a subject. For example:
  • The kids are playing outside.” (active voice)
  • Is being played by the kids outside.” (What is being played by the kids?)

Converting the passive voice into the active voice

You may only convert a sentence from the passive voice into the active voice if there is an identifiable agent of the verb. In the active voice, this agent becomes the subject. For example:
  • This blanket was knitted by my grandmother.” (passive voice)
  • My grandmother knitted this blanket.” (active voice)
  • The deer was being chased by a bear.” (passive voice)
  • A bear was chasing the deer.” (active voice)
If a passive-voice sentences does not contain an agent, it cannot be converted into the active voice, as the sentence will lack coherency without a subject. For example:
  • The Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed more than 4,000 years ago.” (passive voice)
  • Constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza more than 4,000 years ago.” (Who constructed the Great Pyramid of Giza?)

When to use the passive voice

The passive voice is less commonly used than the active voice because it is wordy and often lacks clarity; however, there are several cases in which using the passive voice may be necessary or preferable.
The following sections contain various circumstances in which you might wish to use the passive voice instead of the active voice.

When the receiver of the action is important

The passive voice may be used to emphasize the importance of the receiver of the action. (In contrast, the active voice typically emphasizes the importance of the agent.) The examples below demonstrate the differences between an important receiver of the action (passive voice) and an important agent (active voice):
  • The school dance will be organized by the science teachers this year.” (passive voice—emphasizes the activity in relation to the organizers)
  • The science teachers will organize the school dance this year.” (active voice—emphasizes the organizers in relation to the activity)
  • She is always being praised by her parents.” (passive voice—emphasizes she in relation to her parents)
  • Her parents are always praising her*.” (active voice—emphasizes her parents in relation to her)
(*When the pronoun she is converted into an object, it becomes her.)

When the agent is unknown, irrelevant, or implied

Occasionally, the agent of an action may be unknown or irrelevant to the rest of a sentence, or it may already be heavily implied through the action or receiver of the action. In these cases, the agent may be eliminated altogether (which can only be done with the passive voice—not the active voice). For example:
  • My missing wallet was returned to a lost-and-found.” (unknown agent—we don’t know who returned the missing wallet)
  • A popular play is being performed at the local theater.” (irrelevant agent—the names of the performers are irrelevant)
  • Bathing suits are usually sold in the summer months.” (implied agent—we can assume that the agent is clothing stores or something similar)

When softening an authoritative tone

Because the passive voice places less emphasis on the responsibility of the agent and more emphasis on the receiver of the action, we can use the passive voice to express commands in a softer, less authoritative tone than those expressed through the active voice. For example:
  • Inexperienced mountaineers should not attempt Mount Everest.” (active voice—emphasizes inexperienced mountaineers’ responsibility to avoid the mountain)
  • Mount Everest should not be attempted by inexperienced mountaineers.” (passive voice—emphasizes the difficulty or danger of the mountain)
If the agent is clearly implied, it may be eliminated for the sake of conciseness:
  • You need to finish this project by tomorrow.” (active voice)
  • This project needs to be finished by you by tomorrow.” (passive voice with agent)
  • This project needs to be finished by tomorrow.” (passive voice without agent)

When expressing a professional, neutral, or objective tone

Various forms of writing, including scientific reports and instruction manuals, use the passive voice to express a professional, neutral, or objective tone. Typically, the receiver of the action functions as the primary topic throughout the text. The agent is usually removed due to irrelevance or to avoid a sense of subjectivity. For example:
  • The experiment was conducted over the course of two weeks.”
  • “Once Part A has been inserted into Part B, tighten the screws with a screwdriver.”
  • Adverse reactions to the medication should be assessed and treated by a medical professional.”
Quiz

1. In the following passive-voice sentence, which group of words is the receiver of the action?
“The large monument was erected by the construction crew last spring.”





2. Which of the following passive-voice sentences does not contain an agent of the verb?





3. Which choice correctly converts the following active-voice sentence into the passive voice?
“You should congratulate your sister on her academic achievement.”





4. In which of the following cases should you use the passive voice?







5. Which of the following sentences uses the passive voice?





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