Glossary: agentless passive

Explanation

A passive clause which has no by-phrase or agent, such as All the chocolate was eaten, which does not tell us who did the eating. An agentless passive may be used because the speaker does not know who the agent is, thinks it unimportant to specify the agent, or wants to avoid specifying the agent.

Passives in use

Investigating the effect of using passives

The slides in the Activity page in the right hand menu contain examples of passives from real writing. Have students do the following:

Passives in use: Activity

Extract A (from a student exam paper on emotion)

Furthermore there is evidence that supports these bodily changes as being essential to an emotional state. This evidence involved testing patients with spine severances. The patients were interviewed and tested in a laboratory and results consistently showed that the higher the spine severance the less patients reported being able to ‘feel’ an emotion.

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).

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?

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