The Passive Voice Essay
The Passive Voice
The English language has two voices--the active and the passive. The active voice and the passive voice differ in that a passive verb phrase has an additional auxiliary BE followed by an EN participle. In a sense, the English passive is "inflexible" when compared to the passive formation of other languages. For example, some languages use word order, verb inflections, and impersonal constructions to form the passive voice. In their book, The Grammar Book: ESL/EFL Teacher's Course, Celce-Murcia and Larson-Freeman demonstrate how the Bantu passive voice differs from the English passive voice. "Kingarwanda, a Bantu language, can make even a locative phrase the subject of the passive as in On the bus was eaten a sandwich by John, which would not be acceptable in English" (221). Furthermore, topicalization is another "grammar issue" which differs from language to language. In the Kingarwanda sentence, On the bus was eaten a sandwich by John, the center of attention or the topic of the sentence is the phrase On the bus. Since languages have different rules which govern topicalization, several languages may not accept On the bus as the topic of a sentence. In the book, Clear and Coherent Prose, William Vande Kopple discusses topicalization in the English language. Kopple states that the English language uses topicalizers to "fulfill special functions in essays" (41). Several of these functions are: focusing the reader's attention on a specific part of a sentence, expressing given or "old" information at the beginning of a sentence, marking changes in topics, and lastly, setting contrasts between one topic and another (41).
Since there are differences in topicalization and the formation of the passive voice, non-native speakers may have trouble with English usage rules. On the other hand, students of a foreign language can benefit by comparing the usage rules of their native tongue to the usage rules of a foreign tongue. In order to better understand the usage rules of the English passive voice, it is necessary to begin by examining the most common grammatical function order of English sentences, subject-verb-object.
Active and passive sentences
Subject-verb-object (S-V-O) is the basic structure of English sentences and defines the grammatical function order of active voice sentences. For example, I can handle Mary is a sentence in the active voice which demonstrates the S-V-O pattern. However, S-V-O is not the only sentence pattern of the English language; object-verb-subject (O-V-S) is an alternative pattern. For example, Mary, I can handle produces an O-V-S pattern.
In addition to the grammatical function of a sentence such as subject, verb, and object, each noun phrase in a sentence has a semantic role. Semantic roles are discussed in Finegan and Besnier's chapter on semantics (171). Several of the semantic roles Finegan and Besnier list are: agent, patient, experiencer, instrument, and locative (200)....
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What is passive voice?
In English, all sentences are in either “active” or “passive” voice:
active:Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.
passive: The uncertainty principle was formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927.
In an active sentence, the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence comes first. In a passive sentence, the person or thing acted on comes first, and the actor is added at the end, introduced with the preposition “by.” The passive form of the verb is signaled by a form of “to be”: in the sentence above, “was formulated” is in passive voice while “formulated” is in active.
In a passive sentence, we often omit the actor completely:
The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927.
When do I use passive voice?
In some sentences, passive voice can be perfectly acceptable. You might use it in the following cases:
The actor is unknown:
The cave paintings of Lascaux were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. [We don’t know who made them.]
The actor is irrelevant:
An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. [We are not interested in who is building it.]
You want to be vague about who is responsible:
Mistakes were made. [Common in bureaucratic writing!]
You are talking about a general truth:
Rules are made to be broken. [By whomever, whenever.]
You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on. For example, it may be your main topic:
Insulin was first discovered in 1921 by researchers at the University of Toronto. It is still the only treatment available for diabetes.
You are writing in a scientific genre that traditionally relies on passive voice. Passive voice is often preferred in lab reports and scientific research papers, most notably in the Materials and Methods section:
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. This solution was then titrated with hydrochloric acid.
In these sentences you can count on your reader to know that you are the one who did the dissolving and the titrating. The passive voice places the emphasis on your experiment rather than on you.
Note: Over the past several years, there has been a movement within many science disciplines away from passive voice. Scientists often now prefer active voice in most parts of their published reports, even occasionally using the subject “we” in the Materials and Methods section. Check with your instructor or TA whether you can use the first person “I” or “we” in your lab reports to help avoid the passive.
To learn more about the use of passive voice in the sciences, visit our handout on writing in the sciences.
When should I avoid passive voice?
Passive sentences can get you into trouble in academic writing because they can be vague about who is responsible for the action:
Both Othello and Iago desire Desdemona. She is courted. [Who courts Desdemona? Othello? Iago? Both of them?]
Academic writing often focuses on differences between the ideas of different researchers, or between your own ideas and those of the researchers you are discussing. Too many passive sentences can create confusion:
Research has been done to discredit this theory. [Who did the research? You? Your professor? Another author?]
Some students use passive sentences to hide holes in their research:
The telephone was invented in the nineteenth century. [I couldn’t find out who invented the telephone!]
Finally, passive sentences often sound wordy and indirect. They can make the reader work unnecessarily hard. And since they are usually longer than active sentences, passive sentences take up precious room in your paper:
Since the car was being driven by Michael at the time of the accident, the damages should be paid for by him.
Weeding out passive sentences
If you now use a lot of passive sentences, you may not be able to catch all of the problematic cases in your first draft. But you can still go back through your essay hunting specifically for passive sentences. At first, you may want to ask for help from a writing instructor. The grammar checker in your word processor can help spot passive sentences, though grammar checkers should always be used with extreme caution since they can easily mislead you. To spot passive sentences, look for a form of the verb to be in your sentence, with the actor either missing or introduced after the verb using the word “by”:
Poland was invaded in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
Genetic information is encoded by DNA.
The possibility of cold fusion has been examined for many years.
Try turning each passive sentence you find into an active one. Start your new sentence with the actor. Sometimes you may find that need to do some extra research or thinking to figure out who the actor should be! You will likely find that your new sentence is stronger, shorter, and more precise:
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, thus initiating the Second World War.
DNA encodes genetic information.
Physicists have examined the possibility of cold fusion for many years.