passive voice

Passive Voice

The passive voice is used when focusing on the person or thing affected by an action.

  • The Passive is formed: Passive Subject To Be Past Particple
  • It is often used in business and in other areas where the object of the action is more important than those who perform the action. For Example: We have produced over 20 different models in the past two years. Changes to: Over 20 different models have been produced in the past two years.
  • If the agent (the performer of the action) is important, use “by” For Example: Tim Wilson wrote “The Flight to Brunnswick” in 1987. Changes to:“The Flight to Brunnswick” was written in 1987 by Tim Wilson.
  • Only verbs that take an object can be used in the passive.

The following chart includes sentences changed from the active to the passive in the principal tenses.

Active

Passive

Time Reference

They make Fords in Cologne.

Fords are made in Cologne.

Present Simple

Susan is cooking dinner.

Dinner is being cooked by Susan

Present Continuous

James Joyce wrote “Dubliners”.

“Dubliners” was written by James Joyces.

Past Simple

They were painting the house when I arrived.

The house was being painted when I arrived.

Past Continuous

They have produced over 20 models in the past two years.

Over 20 models have been produced in the past two years.

Present Perfect

They are going to build a new factory in Portland.

A new factory is going to be built in Portland.

Future Intention with Going to

I will finish it tomorrow.

It will be finished tomorrow.

Future Simple

Passive and Active Voices

Verbs are also said to be either active (The executive committee approved the new policy) or passive (The new policy was approved by the executive committee) in voice. In the active voice, the subject and verb relationship is straightforward: the subject is a be-er or a do-er and the verb moves the sentence along. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed (The new policy was approved). Computerized grammar checkers can pick out a passive voice construction from miles away and ask you to revise it to a more active construction. There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, but if you can say the same thing in the active mode, do so (see exceptions below). Your text will have more pizzazz as a result, since passive verb constructions tend to lie about in their pajamas and avoid actual work.

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children” places the burden on the ads — as opposed to “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” accepts responsibility. At a White House press briefing we might hear that “The President was advised that certain members of Congress were being audited” rather than “The Head of the Internal Revenue service advised the President that her agency was auditing certain members of Congress” because the passive construction avoids responsibility for advising and for auditing. One further caution about the passive voice: we should not mix active and passive constructions in the same sentence: “The executive committee approved the new policy, and the calendar for next year’s meetings was revised” should be recast as “The executive committee approved the new policy and revised the calendar for next year’s meeting.”

Take the quiz (below) as an exercise in recognizing and changing passive verbs.

The passive voice does exist for a reason, however, and its presence is not always to be despised. The passive is particularly useful (even recommended) in two situations:

·When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon: The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.

·When the actor in the situation is not important: The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.

The passive voice is especially helpful (and even regarded as mandatory) in scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the actor is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance. Instead of writing “I poured 20 cc of acid into the beaker,” we would write “Twenty cc of acid is/was poured into the beaker.” The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of process are much more important than anyone’s taking responsibility for the action: “The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse.”

We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal. The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behavior. If students withdraw from course work before suspension can take effect, the policy states, a mark of “IW” . . . .

The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.†

Passive Verb Formation

The passive forms of a verb are created by combining a form of the “to be verb” with the past participle of the main verb. Other helping verbs are also sometimes present: “The measure could have been killed in committee.” The passive can be used, also, in various tenses. Let’s take a look at the passive forms of “design.”

Tense

Subject

Auxiliary

Past
Participle

Singular

Plural

Present

The car/cars

is

are

designed.

Present perfect

The car/cars

has been

have been

designed.

Past

The car/cars

was

were

designed.

Past perfect

The car/cars

had been

had been

designed.

Future

The car/cars

will be

will be

designed.

Future perfect

The car/cars

will have been

will have been

designed.

Present progressive

The car/cars

is being

are being

designed.

Past progressive

The car/cars

was being

were being

designed.

A sentence cast in the passive voice will not always include an agent of the action. For instance if a gorilla crushes a tin can, we could say “The tin can was crushed by the gorilla.” But a perfectly good sentence would leave out the gorilla: “The tin can was crushed.” Also, when an active sentence with an indirect object is recast in the passive, the indirect object can take on the role of subject in the passive sentence:

Active

Professor Villa gave Jorge an A.

Passive

An A was given to Jorge by Professor Villa.

Passive

Jorge was given an A.

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