The most common form of the passive in English is the short passive or agentless passive: a construction in which the agent (that is, the performer of an action) is not identified. Example: "Mistakes were made." (In a long passive, the object of the verb in an active sentence becomes the subject.) See the discussion of the passive gradient in Observations, below.
Though style guides often discourage use of the passive, the construction can be quite useful, especially when the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant.
- Passive Infinitive
- Practice in Changing Verbs From Passive to Active: A Sentence-Revision Exercise
- The President's Shocking Use of the Active Voice
- SVO (Subject-Verb-Object)
- Ten Quick Questions and Answers About Verbs and Verbals
- Using Correct Forms of the Verb Be"
Examples and Observations:
- The painting was sold to someone who later donated it to the college.
- "Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale."
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
- "In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."
- "America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else . . .. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy."
(Samuel Eliot Morison)
- "The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the gare Saint-Lazare."
(Raymond Queneau, "Passive." Exercises in Style, 1947)
- "The strength of a man's virtue should not be measured by his special exertions but by his habitual acts."
- "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."
- In Defense of the Passive Voice
"The proportion of passive verbs varies with the type of prose: scientific prose, for instance, may show far more passives than narrative prose. But to point this out is not to denigrate scientific writing. The difference merely reflects the different natures of content, purpose, and audience. . . .
"Not only is the passive voice a significantly frequent option in modern prose, but it is also often the clearest and briefest way to convey information. . . .
"Indiscriminate slandering of the passive voice ought to be stopped. The passive should be recognized as a quite decent and respectable structure of English grammar, neither better nor worse than other structures. When it is properly chosen, wordiness and obscurity are no more increased than when the active voice is properly chosen. Its effective and appropriate use can be taught."
(Jane R. Walpole, "Why Must the Passive Be Damned?" College Composition and Communication, 1979)
"In general, the passive voice should be avoided unless there is good reason to use it, for example, in this sentence, which focuses on 'the passive voice.'"
(A.P. Martinich, "Thomas Hobbes." The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers, ed. by Steven M. Emmanuel. Blackwell, 2001)
- True Passives, Semi-Passives, and the Passive Gradient
"The statistic from corpus analyses that four-fifths of passive sentences in texts occur without the agentive by-phrase makes a nonsense out of deriving passives from actives. In the active subjects are obligatory; there can be no active sentences without a subject. So where do all these passives with no agent come from whereby the agent is unknown? Not from an underlying active, obviously. It is common practice to assume a 'dummy' subject in such cases, equivalent to 'someone,' i.e. underlying My house was burgled is the sentence Someone burgled my house. But that is stretching a point beyond credibility. . . .
"[Randolph] Quirk et al. [in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985] attempt to get over this problem by presenting a 'passive gradient' and the notion of semi-passive, exemplified by the following sentences:
(33) This violin was made by my father.The dotted line indicates the break between real passives and semi-passives. Those above the line are real passives, those below the line are increasingly remote from the ideal passive with a unique active paraphrase, and are not real passives at all--they are semi-passives."
(34) This conclusion is hardly justified by the results.
(35) Coal has been replaced by oil.
(36) This difficulty can be avoided in several ways.
- - - - - - - - - - -
(37) We are encouraged to go on with the project.
(38) Leonard was interested in linguistics.
(39) The building is already demolished.
(40) The modern world is getting more highly industrialized and mechanized.
(41) My uncle was/got/seemed tired.
(Christopher Beedham, Language And Meaning: The Structural Creation of Reality. John Benjamins, 2005)
- When to Use the Passive Voice in Journalistic Writing
"Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald [in When Words Collide, 8th ed., Wadsworth, 2012] offer two situations in which the passive voice must be used. First, passive voice is justified if the receiver of the action is more important than the creator of the action. They use this example:
A priceless Rembrandt painting was stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday by three men posing as janitors.In this case, the Rembrandt should remain the subject of the sentence even though it receives the action. The painting is obviously more important--more newsworthy--than the three men who stole it.
"Kessler and McDonald's second reason for using passive voice is if the writer has no choice. That's when the writer does not know who what the actor, or the creator of the action, is. The example they use:
The cargo was damaged during the trans-Atlantic flight.Air turbulence? Sabotage? Was the cargo strapped in properly? The writer doesn't know, so the voice must be passive."
(Robert M. Knight, A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing: The Craft of Clarity, 2nd ed. Iowa State Press, 2003)
- "We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice--that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'"
(Sidney J. Harris)