Some grammatical features are used much more often in some types of text, or genre, than in others. For instance, imperative clauses (like Chop the carrots finely; Beat the mixture until smooth) are common in instructional genres such as recipes – for obvious reasons.

However, sometimes the reasons for using a particular grammatical structure are less obvious. For instance, why does a speaker or writer use the passive voice (as in The house was sold or The house was sold by his sister) rather than the active (His sister sold the house)? There may be different reasons in different contexts.

In this investigation we are going to look at the passive, and whether it is used more often in some genres than in others. This may help us in thinking about why the passive is used.

Spoken vs. written English

The broadest genre distinction is between spoken and written English. We might pose the question:

  • Is the passive used more often in written than in spoken English?

Spoken vs. written: Step 1

Step 1. We start by looking for main clauses which are passive in ICE-GB. Our search finds the following:

  passive main clauses
Spoken: 2,241
Written: 3,321
Total: 5,562
  • It looks as though there are around 50% more passive clauses in the written material than in the spoken. But is this true?

We can’t directly compare the numbers for spoken and written numbers of passives. Why?

  • The corpus contains different amounts of spoken and written material (about 60% is spoken and 40% written).
  • Main clauses in speech tend to be short and snappy compared to those in writing. This means:
    • We expect to see more main clauses per thousand words in spoken transcripts than in written text.
    • So there are more opportunities to use a passive main clause in speech.

To do a proper comparison, we need to:

  • find out the total number of main clauses in the spoken and written material, and then
  • work out what proportion of these are passive.

Spoken vs. written: Step 2

Step 2. A search for all main clauses in ICE-GB finds the following:

  passives main clauses
Spoken: 2,241 45,334
Written: 3,321 23,722
Total: 5,562 69,056

Spoken vs. written: Step 3

Step 3. Divide the number of passive main clauses by the number of main clauses to answer the question:

  • What percentage of main clauses are passive?
  passives main clauses proportion
Spoken: 2,241 45,334 5%
Written: 3,321 23,722 14%
Total: 5,562 69,056 8%
  • Now we can see that a much higher percentage of clauses are passive in the written material than in the spoken material. 
  • But instead of there being 50% more (as it seemed at Step 1), it’s almost three times as much!

Comparing written genres

At a more detailed level, we can compare use of the passive in different types of written genre.

There are six different kinds of printed written material contained in the corpus (we will leave aside the non-printed written material, such as letters):

  • academic writing
  • creative writing (novels and stories)
  • instructional writing (administrative/regulatory and skills/hobbies)
  • non-academic writing
  • persuasive writing (press editorials)
  • reportage (press news reports)

Which genre do you think will contain the highest proportion of passives?

...And the lowest proportion of passives?

We will again search for passive main clauses and all main clauses, and then calculate the proportion of the main clauses that are passive.

This time we will investigate the different printed written categories.

Comparing written genres: results

We find the following:

  passives main clauses proportion
Academic: 907 3,967 23%
Creative: 160 3,510 5%
Instructional: 464 2,362 20%
Non-academic: 772 4,580 17%
Persuasive: 122 1,066 11%
Reportage: 307 2,392 13%
All printed: 2,732 17,877 15%

Review

  • We can see that the proportions of passive clauses vary considerably among the six genres.
    • Which genres have the highest and lowest proportions?
    • Were your predictions confirmed, or did you find something different?
  • Can you think of possible explanations for the patterns we find in the corpus?
  • Are there ways in which these possible explanations could be tested?

Examining a written extract

One way of exploring further is to look at one or more extracts in detail, examining examples of passives. For instance, we could choose one of the 40 extracts of academic writing in the corpus.

These individual extracts themselves differ in the proportions of passives used, so we could choose one with a particularly high proportion of passives.

Let’s look at some examples of passives taken from an extract about computer software design. The proportion of passives in this extract is 44% – much higher than the proportion for academic writing overall.

The passive verb phrases are highlighted so you can easily find them. (Remember that we searched only for main clauses which were passive. You may notice some other passive verb phrases which are not highlighted because they are in subordinate clauses, e.g. This paper proposes a means by which Mascot can be used ... .)

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Questions for discussion

  • What do these examples suggest about the use of the passive?
  • You might try rewriting some of them in the active voice for comparison.
  • Are there any difficulties in doing this?
  • Why do you think so many passives are used in this text?
  • These examples are all from an article by one writer. To what extent can we generalise from this?

You could further test your ideas by comparing another extract from an academic text. Choose one of the extracts displayed below. They come from:

  • a book on housing in an ageing society (26% passives) [W2A-013]
  • an article on accidents and safety regulations (33% passives) [W2A-018]
  • a scientific article about the atmosphere (54% passives) [W2A-029]

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