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.

  • Polly Peck’s demise is significant nevertheless. It was triggered by investigations of the Sunday Times into its activities, including some dubious share dealings. [W2E-002 #82–3]

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?

  • Voting is well under way in Poland’s presidential election, the first time the Polish people have been able to vote directly for a president. There are six candidates including the Solidarity leader Mr Lech Walesa and the Prime Minister Mr Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The first official results will be announced tomorrow. [S2B-009 #35–7]

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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