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):

  • This process is known as ‘sloughing-off’ and the detached film is collected in a humus tank. [W2A-021 #28]
  • Consequently, these monomers may be metabolised in the absence of oxygen. [W2A-021 #48]
  • A point will be reached where the thickness of the film prevents sufficient nutrients reaching the layer of microorganisms. [W2A-021 #26]

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:

  • we have decided ...
  • we will be implementing a program
  • the misfortune that befell Germany and Europe
  • the Reich had to face a superior coalition
  • the war turned out to be ...
  • It was above all the bloody reckoning

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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