Compare the following:
Oswald shot President Kennedy in 1963.
President Kennedy was shot in 1963.
The first sentence uses an active verb because we are saying what somebody
(or in other cases, something) DID: we want to say what Oswald did.
In the second sentence, we are interested in what HAPPENED to Kennedy,
what was done to him, so a passive verb is used.
In the first sentence, Kennedy is the object; in the second, he is the
Passive verbs, therefore, are often used when who or what was responsible
for an action is not important, or is implicit in what you are saying.
If you are talking about a bill going through Parliament, you would
The bill was passed after a deal was struck between the two parties.
It is obvious that the bill was passed by the Members of Parliament,
so we don't need to mention them.
If you do need to state the 'agent', you do so with the word by:
Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare.
Passive verbs are very often found
in academic writing. They might be used, for example, when:
DESCRIBING PROCEDURES OR
The experiment was carried out in very difficult conditions.
Patients are referred to a specialist after six months.
STATING THE AIMS OF AN ESSAY
The reasons for the budget deficit will be analysed in the final
part of the report.
The essay is divided into three main sections.
In academic writing, it is sometimes
best to avoid showing too much commitment to an idea. It may be better
to be a little evasive, to put some distance between yourself and your
writing. Indeed, until fairly recently, most people would have advised
that you should NEVER use personal language (I think; in my opinion
etc) in your writing. This does seem to be changing however, and in
some fields it has become more acceptable to show personal commitment
and to be less evasive. This is perhaps more common in the USA than
in the UK; indeed, at Birmingham City University there are many tutors who do say that personal
language should always be avoided. If this is the case, then the passive
is a very useful structure. For example:
It can be argued that ...
Some students could be described as lazy.
It is therefore suggested that ...
It is best, though, to avoid using the passive all the time. Aim for
a variety of structures.
Passives are often used when you
are referring to tables, graphs, appendices etc:
It can be seen in Fig.1 that the percentage ...
As is shown in Table 3, ...
The full text of the letter can be found in Appendix 2.
Some verbs cannot be used in the
passive. 'Intransitive' verbs cannot have objects, so by definition
cannot become passive, as there is no object which can become the subject.
Arrive is an example. It can't have an object (you can't 'arrive
something'), so you can't say
The bus was arrived late.
Some 'stative' verbs - verbs which describe states rather than actions
- are almost never found in the passive. Examples include lack,
fit, resemble. You can't say
Sports facilities are lacked
by the University; you need to say The University lacks
sports facilities. Not all stative verbs are like this, however:
check in your dictionary if you're not sure.
The passive is perhaps more common
in English than in other languages. Sentences such as:
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The road is being repaired.
I was given lots of lovely presents when I left.
are normal in English, whereas a reflexive verb or an impersonal agent
might be used in other languages.
Last updated: 27 May 2011