English passive voice

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The passive voice is a grammatical construction (a "voice") in which the subject of a sentence or clause denotes the recipient of the action (the patient) rather than the performer (the agent). In the English language, the English passive voice is formed with an auxiliary verb (usually be or get) plus a participle (usually the past participle) of a transitive verb.

For example, "Caesar was stabbed by Brutus" uses the passive voice. The subject denotes the person (Caesar) affected by the action of the verb. The counterpart to this in active voice is, "Brutus stabbed Caesar", in which the subject denotes the doer, or agent, Brutus.

A sentence featuring the passive voice is sometimes called a passive sentence, and a verb phrase in passive voice is sometimes called a passive verb.[1] English differs from languages in which voice is indicated through a simple inflection, since the English passive is periphrastic, composed of an auxiliary verb plus the past participle of the transitive verb.

Use of the English passive varies with writing style and field. Some style sheets discourage use of passive voice,[2] while others encourage it.[3] Although some purveyors of usage advice, including George Orwell (see Politics and the English Language, 1946) and William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (see The Elements of Style, 1919) discourage the English passive, its usefulness is recognized in cases where the theme (receiver of the action) is more important than the agent.[4]


Identifying the English passive

In the following excerpt from the 18th-century United States Declaration of Independence (1776), the bold text identifies passive verbs; italicized text identifies the one active verb (hold ) and the copulative verb are:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In this case, the agent ("the Creator") of the passive construction can be identified with a by phrase. When such a phrase is missing, the construction is an agentless passive. For example, "Caesar was stabbed" is a perfectly grammatical full sentence, in a way that "stabbed Caesar" and "Brutus stabbed" are not. Agentless passives are common in scientific writing, where the agent may be irrelevant (e.g. "The mixture was heated to 300°C").

It is not the case, however, that any sentence in which the agent is unmentioned or marginalised is an example of the passive voice. Sentences like "There was a stabbing" or "A stabbing occurred" are not passive. In each case, both the subject and the agent are the gerund "stabbing". See "Misapplication of the term," below for more discussion of this misconception.

Usage and style

Against the passive voice

Many language critics and language-usage manuals discourage use of the passive voice.[4] This advice is not usually found in older guides, emerging only in the first half of the twentieth century.[5] In 1916, the British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch, criticized this grammatical voice:

Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its’s and was’s, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man’s style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or 'composition'.[6]

Two years later, in 1918, in The Elements of Style Cornell University Professor of English William Strunk, Jr. warned against excessive use of the passive voice:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive . . . This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary . . . The need to make a particular word the subject of the sentence will often . . . determine which voice is to be used. The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is or could be heard.[7]

In 1926, in the authoritative A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler recommended against transforming active voice forms into passive voice forms, because doing so "sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness".[8][9]

In 1946, in the essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946), George Orwell recommended the active voice as an elementary principle of composition: "Never use the passive where you can use the active."

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) stated that:

Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.[10]

Krista Ratcliffe notes the use of passives as an example of the role of grammar as "a link between words and magical conjuring [...]: passive voice mystifies accountability by erasing who or what performs an action [...].[11]

For the passive voice

Jan Freeman, a reporter for The Boston Globe, said that the passive voice does have its uses, and that "all good writers use the passive voice".[12] For example, despite Orwell's advice to avoid the passive, his "Politics and the English Language" (1946) employs passive voice for about 20 percent of its constructions. By comparison, a statistical study found about 13 percent passive constructions in newspapers and magazines.[4]

Passive writing is not necessarily slack and indirect. Many famously vigorous passages use the passive voice, as in these examples:

  • Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. (King James Bible, Isaiah 40:4)
  • Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York. (Shakespeare's Richard III, I.1, ll. 1–2)
  • For of those to whom much is given, much is required. (John F. Kennedy's quotation of Luke 12:48 in his address to the Massachusetts legislature, 9 January 1961.)[13]
  • Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons, 20 August 1940.)

Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) recommends the passive voice when identifying the object (receiver) of the action is more important than the subject (agent), and when the agent is unknown, unimportant, or not worth mentioning:

  • The child was struck by the car.
  • The store was robbed last night.
  • Plows should not be kept in the garage.
  • Kennedy was elected president.[4]

The principal criticism against the passive voice is its potential for evasion of responsibility. This is because a passive clause may omit the agent even where it is important:

  • We had hoped to report on this problem, but the data were inadvertently deleted from our files.[4][14]

(See weasel words.) However, the passive can also be used to emphasize the agent, and it may be better for that role than the active voice, because the end of a clause is the ideal place to put something you wish to emphasize:

  • Don't you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor![15]

Similarly, the passive may be useful when modifying the agent, as heavily modified noun phrases also tend to occur last in a clause:

  • The breakthrough was achieved by Burlingame and Evans, two researchers in the university's genetic engineering lab.[14]

Passive constructions

In general, the passive voice is used to place focus on the grammatical patient, rather than the agent. This properly occurs when the patient is the topic of the sentence. However, the passive voice can also be used when the focus is on the agent.

Canonical passives

Passive constructions have a range of meanings and uses. The canonical use is to map a clause with a direct object to a corresponding clause where the direct object has become the subject. For example:

  • John threw the ball.

Here threw is a transitive verb with John as its subject and the ball as its direct object. If we recast the verb in the passive voice (was thrown), then the ball becomes the subject (it is "promoted" to the subject position) and John disappears:

  • The ball was thrown.

The original "demoted" subject can typically be re-inserted using the preposition by.

  • The ball was thrown by John.

An example of the canonical use of the get passive arises from the recasting of the clause "The ball hit Bob":

  • Bob got hit by the ball.

Promotion of other objects

One non-canonical use of English's passive is to promote an object other than a direct object. It is usually possible in English to promote indirect objects as well. For example:

  • John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book.
  • John gave Mary a book. → Mary was given a book by John.

In the active form, gave is the verb; John is its subject, Mary its indirect object, and a book its direct object. In the passive forms, the indirect object has been promoted and the direct object has been left in place. (In "A book was given to Mary", the direct object is promoted and the indirect object left in place. In this respect, English resembles dechticaetiative languages.)

It is also possible, in some cases, to promote the object of a preposition:

  • They talked about the problem. → The problem was talked about.

In the passive form here, the preposition is "stranded"; that is, it is not followed by an object.

Promotion of content clauses

It is possible to promote a content clause that serves as a direct object. In this case, however, the clause typically does not change its position in the sentence, and an expletive it takes the normal subject position:

  • They say that he left. → It is said that he left.

Stative passives

The passives described above are all eventive (or dynamic) passives. Stative (or static, or resultative) passives also exist in English; rather than describing an action, they describe the result of an action. English does not usually distinguish between the two. For example:

  • The window was broken.

This sentence has two different meanings, roughly the following:

  • [Someone] broke the window.
  • The window was not intact.

The former meaning represents the canonical, eventive passive; the latter, the stative passive. (The terms eventive and stative/resultative refer to the tendencies of these forms to describe events and resultant states, respectively. The terms can be misleading, however, as the canonical passive of a stative verb is not a stative passive, even though it describes a state.)

Some verbs do not form stative passives. In some cases, this is because distinct adjectives exist for this purpose, such as with the verb open:

  • The door was opened. → [Someone] opened the door.
  • The door was open. → The door was in the open state.

Adjectival passives

Adjectival passives are not true passives; they occur when a participial adjective (an adjective derived from a participle) is used predicatively (see Adjective). For example:

  • She was relieved to find her car.

Here, relieved is an ordinary adjective, though it derives from the past participle of relieve,[16] and that past participle may be used in canonical passives:

  • He was relieved of duty.

In some cases, the line between an adjectival passive and a stative passive may be unclear, as in:

  • The door was closed. (= The door was closed by [someone] = [Someone] closed the door OR = The door was not open.)

Passives without active counterparts

In a few cases, passive constructions retain all the sense of the passive voice, but do not have immediate active counterparts. For example:

  • He was rumored to be a war veteran. ← *[Someone] rumored him to be a war veteran.

(The asterisk here denotes an ungrammatical construction.) Similarly:

  • It was rumored that he was a war veteran. ← *[Someone] rumored that he was a war veteran.

In both of these examples, the active counterpart was once possible, but has fallen out of use.

Double passives

It is possible but it is not necesary for a verb in the passive voice—especially an object-raising verb—to take an infinitive complement that is also in the passive voice:

  • The project is expected to be completed in the next year.

Commonly, either or both verbs may be moved into the active voice:

  • [Someone] expects the project to be completed in the next year.
  • [Someone] is expected to complete the project in the next year.
  • [Someone] expects [someone] to complete the project in the next year.

In some cases, a similar construction may occur with a verb that is not object-raising in the active voice:

  •  ?The project will be attempted to be completed in the next year. ← *[Someone] will attempt the project to be completed in the next year. ← [Someone] will attempt to complete the project in the next year.

(The question mark here denotes a questionably-grammatical construction.) In this example, the object of the infinitive has been promoted to the subject of the main verb, and both the infinitive and the main verb have been moved to the passive voice. The American Heritage Book of English Usage declares this unacceptable,[17] but it is nonetheless recommended in a variety of contexts.[18]

Passives without a past participle

Rarely, the passive voice can be expressed without the use of the past participle, as in[19]

  • That rash needs looking at by a specialist.

Here "looking at by a specialist" is a noun phrase serving as the object of the active verb "needs"; in the noun phrase the implied subject is "rash", which is the patient of the verb "look at", and the agent "specialist" appears in a prepositional "by" phrase.

Misapplication of the term

Occasionally, writers misapply the term passive voice to sentences that do not identify the actor.[20] For example, this extract from The New Yorker magazine refers to the American embezzler Bernard Madoff; bold text identifies the mis-identified passive voice verbs:

Two sentences later, Madoff said, "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly, and I would be able to extricate myself, and my clients, from the scheme." As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him . . . In most of the rest of the statement, one not only heard the aggrieved passive voice, but felt the hand of a lawyer: "To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties."[21]

The intransitive verbs would end and began are in the active voice. Although the speaker uses the words in a manner that subtly diverts responsibility from him, this is not accomplished by use of passive voice.[22]

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White mis-apply the passive voice term to several active voice constructions; Prof. Geoffrey Pullum writes:

Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard" is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • "It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had", also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • "The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired", is presumably fingered as passive because of impaired, but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press. p. 411. ISBN 052162181X. 
  2. ^ Nature Publishing Group (2010). Writing for a Nature journal "How to write a paper". Authors & referees. http://www.nature.com/authors/author_services/how_write.html Writing for a Nature journal. Retrieved 2010-08-05. 
  3. ^ International Studies Review (10 March 2010). "Journal house style points". http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/pdf/FPA_IPS_INSP_ISQU_MISR_ContentStyleSheet.pdf. Retrieved 2010-08-05. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Webster's Dictionary of English Usage 720 – 21 (1989).
  5. ^ Zwicky, Arnold (2006-07-22). "How long have we been avoiding the passive, and why?". Language Log. 
  6. ^ Arthur Quiller-Couch, On the Art of Writing ch. 7 (1916).
  7. ^ William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style ch. 3, sec. 11 (1918).
  8. ^ Bell, Griffin B. (1966). "Style in judicial writing". 15 J. Pub. L. 214. http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/emlj15&div=17&id=&page=. Retrieved 2010-03-02. "Fowler, the recognized modern authority on the use of the English language" 
  9. ^ Fowler, W. W.; Crystal, David (2009) [1926]. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford World's Classics Hardbacks Series (reissue ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 425. ISBN 9780199535347. http://books.google.com/?id=Vr7muDFR6j4C. Retrieved 2010-03-02. "PASSIVE DISTURBANCES. [...] The conversion of an active-verb sentence into a passive-verb one of the same meaning - e.g. of You killed him into He was killed by you - is a familiar process. But it sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness." 
  10. ^ Wilson, Kenneth G. (1992). "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English". http://www.bartleby.com/68/5/6405.html. .
  11. ^ Ratcliffe, Krista (1996). Anglo-American feminist challenges to the rhetorical traditions: Virginia Woolf, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich. SIU Press. p. 94. ISBN 9780809319343. http://books.google.com/books?id=u9aN0T7bRrMC. Retrieved 2010-10-14. 
  12. ^ Freeman, Jan (2009-03-22). "Active resistance: What we get wrong about the passive voice". The Boston Globe (Boston). ISSN 0743-1791. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/03/22/active_resistance/. Retrieved 2010-03-01. "All good writers use the passive voice." 
  13. ^ Address to Massachusetts legislature (Jan. 9, 1961)
  14. ^ a b The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996).
  15. ^ Geoffrey Pullum, "The passive in English", Language Log 2011 January 24, 2011 [1]
  16. ^ Language Log: How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing
  17. ^ The American Heritage Book of English Usage, ch. 1, sect. 24 "double passive." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. http://www.bartleby.com/64/C001/024.html. Accessed 13 November 2006.
  18. ^ Neal Whitman, "Double Your Passive, Double Your Fun", in Literal Minded. http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2005/05/16/double-your-passive-double-your-fun/. Accessed 13 November 2006.
  19. ^ Geoffrey K. Pullum. "The passive in English". Language Log. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2922. 
  20. ^ Mark Liberman, "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.," in Language Log, 2009 March 12.
  21. ^ Nancy Franklin, "The Dolor of Money," The New Yorker, 2009 March 23, at 24, 25.
  22. ^ Mark Liberman, "The aggrieved passive voice," in Language Log, 2009 March 16.
  23. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K (17 April 2009). "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice". The Chronicle of Higher Education 55 (32): B15. http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i32/32b01501.htm. Retrieved 2009-04-12. 

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