36 Using the Passive Voice

There are several different situations where the passive voice is more useful than the active voice.

  • When you don’t know who did the action: The paper had been moved.
    • The active voice would be something like this: “Someone had moved the paper.” While this sentence is technically fine, the passive voice sentence has a more subtle element of mystery, which can be especially helpful in creating a mood in fiction.
  • When you want to hide who did the action: The window had been broken.
    • The sentence is either hiding who broke the window or they do not know. Again, the sentence can be reformed to say “Someone had broken the window,” but using the word someone clearly indicates that someone (though we may not know who) is at fault here. Using the passive puts the focus on the window rather than on the person who broke it, as he or she is completely left out of the sentence.
  • When you want to emphasize the person or thing the action was done to: Caroline was hurt when Kent broke up with her.
    • We automatically focus on the subject of the sentence. If the sentence were to say “Kent hurt Caroline when he broke up with her,” then our focus would be drawn to Kent rather than Caroline.
  • A subject that can’t actually do anything: Caroline was hurt when she fell into the trees.
    • While the trees hurt Caroline, they didn’t actually do anything. Thus, it makes more sense to have Caroline as the subject rather than saying “The trees hurt Caroline when she fell into them.”
Note: It’s often against convention in scholarly writing to use I. While this may seem like a forced rule, it also stems from the fact that scholars want to emphasize the science or research as opposed to the author of the paper. This often results in the passive voice being the best choice. This is not the case in other formal settings, such as in resumes and in cover letters.

Practice

Consider the following instances. In each case, determine why the writers might want to use active or passive voice. Write an example sentence based on their circumstances.

  1. Antonella made an error in her calculations that ruined an experiment. This error ended up costing both time and materials. She has to write a report to her boss. What might she say about the experiment?
  2. Isabel is writing a supernatural thriller. Her main character, Liam, notices that his keys aren’t where he left them. How might Isabel word this realization?
  3. Thiago is writing a cover letter to apply for a new job. He is listing out tasks that he does at his current job. How would he want to word these items?

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  1. Antonella would likely want to write in the passive voice. Even if her boss knows she made the error, writing in the passive will draw attention away from that fact. She might say something like this:
    • An error was made that ended up costing time and resources. The experiment will have to be repeated with new materials.
  2. Isabel could use either the passive or the active. It depends on the emphasis she wants. The passive voice subtly hints at a mysterious actor. The active voice blatantly states it:
    • Liam’s keys had been moved when he wasn’t looking.
    • Something—or someone—had moved Liam’s keys when he wasn’t looking.
  3. Thiago would want to use the active voice. Since he’s apply for a job, he would want to emphasize the fact that he is accomplishing the tasks: the fact that he’s doing them is more important than the simple fact that the things were done. He might write something like the following:
    • I currently work as a teaching assistant for a linguistics professor. I organize her mail, flagging important items so she knows what needs immediate attention; I aid her in her research, finding interesting articles and studies; and I often help her students when her attention is needed elsewhere.

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Using the Passive

Now that we know there are some instances where passive voice is the best choice, how do we use the passive voice to it fullest? The answer lies in writing direct sentences—in passive voice—that have simple subjects and verbs. Compare the two sentences below:

  • Photomicrographs were taken to facilitate easy comparison of the samples.
  • Easy comparison of the samples was facilitated by the taking of photomicrographs.

Both sentences are written in the passive voice, but for most ears the first sentence is more direct and understandable, and therefore preferable. Depending on the context, it does a clearer job of telling us what was done and why it was done. Especially if this sentence appears in the “Experimental” section of a report (and thus readers already know that the authors of the report took the photomicrographs), the first sentence neatly represents what the authors actually did—took photomicrographs—and why they did it—to facilitate easy comparison.

Practice

Read the following sentences. Are they using the passive effectively? If there are any errors, rewrite the sentences accordingly.

  1. The machine needs to be reset at 10:23, 11:12, and 11:56 every night.
  2. The final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains, are going to be completed by Kajuana.
  3. The difficult task of measuring minute fluctuations in weight was made easier by the use of a new digital scale.

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  1. Yes. In this case, it doesn’t matter who accomplishes the action; it simply needs to be done. If this sentence appears in an academic article, the passive may be even more appropriate, as that style often demands the actor be left out of the sentence.
  2. No. This would be better in the active voice. There are a lot of different parts to the sentence, and by converting the sentence to the active voice, they come in a more logical order that is easier to understand:
    • Kajuana is going to complete the final steps, which need to be finished before the sun sets over the mountains.
  3. No. This passive construction is very convoluted. An active sentence would serve well here:
    • A new digital scale made it easier to measure minute fluctuations in weight.

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As we mentioned in Text: Non-Finite Verbs, the passive voice can also be used following relative pronouns like that and which.

  • I moved into the house that was built for me.
  • Adrián’s dog loves the treats that are given to him.
  • Brihanna has an album that was signed by the Beastie Boys.

In each of these sentences, it is grammatically sound to omit (or elide) the pronoun and to be. Elision is used with a lot of different constructions in English; we use it shorten sentences when things are understood. However, we can only use elision in certain situations, so be careful when removing words! You may find these elided sentences more natural:

  • I moved into the house built for me.
  • Adrián’s dog loves the treats given to him.
  • Brihanna has an album signed by the Beastie Boys

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English Composition I by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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