Active and passive

Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?

  1. The council workers cleared the path.
  2. The path was cleared by the council workers.

The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.

In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).

We say that the first sentence uses the active voice, in which the Subject is an agent who does something to the Object. The latter expresses the patient (undergoer). The second sentence uses the passive voice, in which the Subject is the patient and the agent ends up in the by-phrase (by the council workers). Here are some further examples:

Voice is a useful concept to understand because it can be used by writers to shift the focus of what they are writing about. It can also be used to conceal who carried out the action denoted by the verb. The example below illustrates this:

Here the writer or speaker did not specify who made the mistake, and perhaps they did so deliberately to hide who this person was. This is called an agentless passive.

How are passive sentences formed? Consider these examples and their passive counterparts:

Here we see that the passive voice is formed by making the Object of the active clause the Subject of the passive clause. In addition we need to use the auxiliary verb be followed by a past participle.

Many active clauses have no corresponding passive. An example is This house has five bedrooms. We cannot passivise this to Five bedrooms are had by this house.

Notice also that clauses which contain an intransitive verb (i.e. a verb without an Object) also do not have passive versions. So the sentence She laughed cannot become passive because here there is no noun phrase following the verb which could become the Subject of a passive clause.

In matching active/passive pairs, it is usually the Direct Object of the active that matches the Subject in the passive, as in the examples we’ve looked at so far.

But it can also be another element such as an Indirect Object, e.g.:

In some cases the past participle form of the verb is hard to recognise, as in the following example:

The reason is that the past participle of the verb put has the same spelling and pronunciation as the present tense and past tense forms.

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Active and passive: Style and use

In some genres of writing – science reports, for example – the passive voice is encouraged. However, many advocates of ‘plain English’ argue that the passive voice can be confusing to readers, and obscures meaning.

The examples below are from articles on the natural sciences, taken from the ICE-GB corpus. They illustrate the use of the passive voice (verb phrases in the passive are highlighted):

Perhaps because the word ‘voice’ also has broader meanings in English, the passive voice often causes confusion to some people. Take a look at the following examples from the blog Language Log which have all been identified (wrongly) as passives:

None of these are actually passives. If you look carefully at the verb phrases, you will see that none of them have the auxiliary verb be followed by a past participle.

In the transcript below, the passive verb phrases are marked. Click on the '+' symbol to expand the extract.

Note: You might notice that some of them have an -ed participle verb but no auxiliary be – these are special nonfinite passive clauses. They can be expanded into full finite passive clauses with be. Take the example ‘the term “flux”, as used here’. This could be expanded to ‘as it is used here’.

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Active and passive: Creating cohesion

When does a writer or speaker choose to use a passive rather than an active? There can be various reasons. We’ll look here at the effects of using passives in different contexts.

Consider sentence (1). Would it be more natural to follow it with (2) or (3)? Why?

  1. The British team were very disappointed with their performance yesterday.
  2. ... The French team beat them 27–8. (active)
  3. ... They were beaten 27–8 by the French team. (passive)

Although both are possible, (3) is more likely. This is because the topic we are talking about is the British team, and there is a strong tendency for the topic to be expressed early in the sentence as the Subject, as in (3). This makes for greater continuity with (1).

Look at the following example from a press editorial discussing the crash of the company Polly Peck. Why do you think a passive has been used in the second sentence? Try changing it to an active and see what the effect is.

Here are the two versions to compare, passive in (1) and active in (2):

  1. Polly Peck’s demise is significant nevertheless. It was triggered by investigations of the Sunday Times into its activities, including some dubious share dealings.
  2. Polly Peck’s demise is significant nevertheless. Investigations of the Sunday Times into its activities, including some dubious share dealings, triggered it.

The passive is much more natural here. The demise (or crash) of Polly Peck is the topic and is ‘old information’ (already discussed in preceding text). So it is natural to continue this topic in the Subject (as it).  Also, the Subject in the active is very long, which sounds awkward. This long noun phrase introduces new information, which is better expressed later in the sentence, as in the passive.

Now look at the following example from a news broadcast, where a passive is used in the third sentence. What happens if we replace this with an active sentence? Why do you think a passive has been used?

Our passive example here, The first official results will be announced tomorrow, is an agentless passive. There is no phrase starting with by to tell us who will do the announcing. To change to an active sentence, we would have to add this information. For example, we might say The electoral commission will announce the first official results tomorrow, if we think the electoral commission is the correct agent.

In this example, it is not really important to specify the agent. It is obvious from the context that the agent will be the relevant official body or spokesperson within Poland. The timing of the announcement is of more interest.

In some cases, an agentless passive may be used because the agent is unknown. For example, someone might say My phone was stolen when they do not know who stole it.

An agentless passive can also be used in order to avoid revealing the identity of the agent or agents, as we saw with our earlier example, Mistakes were made, which avoids specifying who exactly was to blame.

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