Many teachers warn against using the passive voice. They stress using the active voice as a structure that is clearer, stronger, and more direct. Though this may be true in many contexts, the passive does have a value that is often overlooked: sentence variety and cohesion.
First, let’s review what a passive structure is and how to construct it. Look at the following examples:
Ex: Many people believe that slaves built the Pyramids in Egypt using nothing but their own raw strength and that of domesticated animals.
It is widely believed that the Pyramids in Egypt were built using nothing but the raw strength of slaves and domesticated animals.
Both sentences convey the same meaning. However, in terms of structure, the latter is a mirror image of the former. In active structures there is always an agent, or actor (subject), acting on something or someone (object). In other words, there is a subject that does the verb to an object. To see this, let’s look at a simpler example:
The cat ate the rat. In this case, the cat (subject) did the action of eating (verb) the rat (object). The mirror image is: The rat was eaten by the cat. In this case, the rat (subject) receives the action (verb) from the cat (agent). Notice that we no longer have an object but rather a transformation of the active-voiced object to a passive subject, and a transformation of the active subject to a passive-voiced agent. In this perspective, it is the subject that receives the action, just as it had when it was an object.
In our longer examples above, we have transformed both the main clause (many people believe) and the noun clause (that slaves built the Pyramids in Egypt using nothing but their own raw strength and that of domesticated animals) into passive constructs. We have retained the meaning, as well as the word count (22 words in each sentence).
How to construct the passive
The essential components of the passive structure are the be verb and the past participle form of the action verb that accompanies it. Where many students make mistakes is in the different tenses of a sentence’s main verb.
Ex: Present simple: One of the many holidays that are observed in this country is the Queen’s birthday.
Past simple: The package was delivered and signed for at 8 a.m. this morning, as scheduled.
Future simple: Even though the Chief of Police resigned last week, his replacement will only be (or is only going to be) appointed sometime in the fall.
Present continuous: The speech is being broadcast live on the internet.
Past continuous: Last I heard, the theater was being renovated to accommodate a larger audience.
Future continuous: We cannot write a passive form of the future continuous, at least not in the strict meaning of the term continuous. If a sentence requires a shift from active to passive, change the future continuous active into a future simple passive. The meaning will not be affected.
Present perfect: When a celebrity hasn’t been seen or heard from in many years, most people assume he or she had chosen to retire from the spotlight.
Past perfect: If he hadn’t been approached by the team that winter, Shaun would probably have left the country to pursue other opportunities.
Future perfect: At the rate you’re working at, Kyle’s paper will already have been marked and returned to him before you even submit yours.
Modal: Jack’s source of wealth may be questioned, but his power cannot be ignored.
Modal + Infinitive: This form needs to be filled out before we can process your request.
Infinitive: Jack asked to be excused from attending the meeting.
Note: As the subject of the passive verb is also its object, remember that we do not use the passive form with intransitive verbs (verbs that do not take an object)—Tom went to the store to buy milk. … To the store was gone Tom to buy milk. (the second sentence is incorrect)
So why use the passive?
Here are six reasons to use the passive:
- The agent is unknown or obvious: My house was broken into last night. Who broke into my house? I can say that it was a burglar, but that is obvious. I don’t know who it was (which is why the police are still investigating). In this case, use the passive to focus on the main idea, which is that I was robbed.
- The agent is irrelevant: After it had been sitting on the curb for a week, the garbage was finally picked up this morning. I really don’t care who picked it up. It was probably the municipal workers whose job it is to perform this service, but this is unimportant. What is important is that my neighborhood does not smell bad anymore.
- The central topic is more important: If I write an essay about the Pyramids, I will want the Pyramids to be the focus of most of my sentences. Therefore, I will place them at the beginning of the sentence in the subject position where they take the lead in the sentence. The Pyramids were built by slaves shows that importance lies with the Pyramids, not the slaves (which would be the case if I wrote Slaves built the Pyramids).
- You are expressing a general truth: Respect needs to be earned. The agent is abstract or too general to need mentioning. Respect needs to be earned by everyone. It is not freely given to anyone. (Compare with Everyone needs to earn respect.)
- You want to be vague: To avoid pointing at someone/something specifically, or to deflect blame, you can use the passive to avoid an agent altogether. If a problem exists, simply state that It will be taken care of. This does not commit you to designating responsibility to anyone to actually take care of it.
- Last, but certainly not least, and in fact the most significant reason to use the passive voice is style. By this we mean sentence variety, cohesion and flow, and transitioning to new ideas. If we end a sentence with one idea, we want to reintroduce that idea early in the next sentence and then move on to the next idea. Sometimes this isn’t easy to do if we stick to active voice alone.
The lawmaker will have a very difficult time passing the bill through Congress because of the controversial nature of its features.
We now want to discuss these features without returning to focus on Congress or the lawmaker, as in The members of Congress regard these features as difficult because…. To make the features the subject, the quickest and most efficient way is by placing them in the subject position and using a passive construction: The features are regarded as difficult because…. It is clear who thinks they are difficult—members of Congress, making this inclusion unnecessary.
To sum up, then, knowing the different structures available to you and the specific contexts in which to use these will allow you to create more engaging and powerful writing.