Language

La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni
La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni
La Trobe University

Language

Achieve@Uni

Active and passive voice

 

What is passive voice?

Adapted from Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The Grammar Book (2nd ed). US: Heinle & Heinle.

In English, as in many other languages, it is possible to change the focus of an utterance or a written sentence from the active to the passive (called active voice and passive voice by linguists).

This shift relates to who or what serves as the subject of the sentence.

  • In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the agent/actor of the action described by the verb. The following sentence is in the active voice:

            Ian Allison has studied the ice and climate of Antarctica.

In the sentence, Ian Allison’ is the actor/agent,  (also the subject), ‘has studied’ is the verb and ‘the ice and climate of Antarctica’ is the object (what is being studied).

However, there are times when speakers/writers of English have reason to put the object of the action into the subject position and this is called the passive voice:

            The ice and climate of Antarctica has been studied by Ian Allison.

This is called ‘focal adjustment’1 and is similar to when a photographer focuses on the foreground or background.  There are many reasons why speakers and writers decide to shift from active to passive. To find out more about passive voice, go to the other two tabs in this grammar area:

  • Why the passive is used & activities
  • How the passive is formed & activities
     

1 Langacker 1987, cited in Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The Grammar Book (2nd ed). US: Heinle & Heinle.

 

Why is passive used?

The use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error, despite what the wriggly green underlining of Microsoft Word would have you believe.

There are three main reasons why a writer would choose to use the passive voice.

a) The agent is unknown, irrelevant or obvious

  • Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated in 1170.
  • An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Northern Territory.
  • Mangoes are grown in the north of Australia.
  • Penguins are found only in the southern hemisphere.

b)  The agent is less important than what is being done or acted on.

  • The flowers were removed and the seeds collected.
  • Carbohydrates are produced by green plants in the presence of light and chlorophyll.

c)  The agent is removed in order to be tactful or evasive

  • The student was given some poor advice about subject selection.
  • Budget errors were made.

Inexperienced writers often overuse or underuse passive voice.

Overuse of the passive can: 

  • weaken the narrative force (because the agent is lost or vague);
  • lead to confusion (who has done what to whom?);
  • appear to cover up gaps in knowledge;
  • produce unnecessarily wordy texts.

Underuse of the passive can mean that the writing:

  • fails to connect the main ideas;
  • focuses on the irrelevant;
  • focuses too heavily on the agent (often the ‘I’ or the ‘we’).

Passive Voice Activity- Underuse and overuse of passive

This paragraph underuses the passive and focuses too heavily on the agent (the 'I').

I conducted a mixed method study over two separate but related phases: an initial quantitative phase, which informed a second qualitative phase. I used a survey questionnaire as the method of data collection for Phase 1, while in Phase 2, I conduced semi-structured interviews. I involved a total of 176 participants in Phase 1 from a random sample of NPs, nurse managers and nurse policy advisors across Australian states and territories. The theoretical framework I used to underpin the study was organisational change.

How would you rewrite this passage?

 

See the rewritten passage

A mixed method study was conducted over two separate but related phases: an initial quantitative phase, which informed a second qualitative phase. A survey questionnaire was the method of data collection for Phase 1, while Phase 2 consisted of semi-structured interviews. A total of 176 participants were involved in Phase 1 from a random sample of NPs, nurse managers and nurse policy advisors across Australian states and territories. An organisational change theoretical framework was used to underpin the conduct of this study.

From Lowe, G. Integration of Nurse Practitioners into Australian healthcare settings: A mixed methods study of the structural, human resource, political and cultural implications for organisational change. 2014 PhD thesis

Note how the use of the passive in this paragraph directs the focus away from the agent who is doing the action (the 'I') and onto what was done. Since this is a section describing the methods of a study, such a shift in focus is appropriate.

 

Next
This paragraph overuses the passive and the narrative is weakened because the agent (Edna) is lost.

Unfortunately, these very same children can become surprisingly reticent once they enter school. On the last fieldtrip, Edna was observed, by me sitting in the back of the classroom, putting plastic bottle tops and the lids of pens into her mouth whenever attempts were made to engage her in talk by her monolingual English-speaking teacher. In the group, her precociously verbal behaviour was noted. A chair was turned into a bus and wooden blocks into rifles, knives, cigarettes and fire-wood by her at the age of two-and-a-half, at her mother's prompting. The questions and answers that were part of the play were actively participated in by her. Recordings of her as the only child asking why questions were made. In the classroom, a reluctance to answer questions posed (in English) by the teacher was observed and seldom were questions asked by Edna and the other children who were part of this study. This behaviour has been well documented in other studies that have reported, inter alia, a reluctance to ask and answer questions in the classroom by Aboriginal children.

How would you rewrite this passage?

 

See the rewritten passage

Unfortunately, these very same children can become surprisingly reticent once they enter school. On my last fieldtrip, I sat in the back of the classroom and watched as Edna put plastic bottle tops and the lids of pens into her mouth whenever her monolingual English-speaking teacher tried to engage her in talk. This is the child who was one of the most precociously verbal in the group, who at the age of two-and-a-half could, at her mother's prompting, turn a chair into a bus and wooden blocks into rifles, knives, cigarettes and fire-wood and who would actively participate in the questions and answers that were part of the play. She was also the only child recorded asking why questions. In the classroom, Edna and the other children who were part of this study seemed reluctant to answer questions posed (in English) by the teacher and seldom asked any themselves. This behaviour has been well documented in other studies that have reported, inter alia, on Aboriginal children's reluctance to ask and answer questions in the classroom.

From Moses, K. How do dinosaurs hug in the Kimberley? The use of questions by Aboriginal caregivers and children in a Walmajarri community.2009 PhD thesis

Note how the use of the active voice in this paragraph brings the narrative to life and enables the reader to follow more clearly the agent (Edna) and her actions. This clarity makes it easy to read even long sentences.

 

Finish

 

How is passive formed?

Adapted from Monash University’s Language and Learning Online

To change the active to the passive voice involves three steps.

Step 1 Move the object to the subject position at the beginning of the sentence

Eg.       active voice:  The manager will implement the changes next year.

            passive voice: The changes ...

            active voice:   Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.

            passive voice: The uncertainty principle …

 

Step 2 Change the verb to the passive

Eg.       active voice:  The manager will implement the changes next year.

            passive voice: The changes will be implemented …

            active voice:   Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.

            passive voice: The uncertainty principle was formulated …

The passive voice can be formed in any tense. It uses the auxiliary (to be) and all other elements of the English tense and aspect system. Here are a few of the combinations that form the passive.

  • with modals (eg. can, should, might, may)
    Solar panels can be used to generate electrical power.
  • with present simple
    Solar panels are used to generate electrical power.
  • with present perfect
    Solar panels have been used to generate electrical power.
  • with present continuous/progressive
    Solar panels are being used to generate electrical power.
  • with past simple
    Solar panels were used to generate electrical power.
  • with past continuous/progressive
    Solar panels were being used to generate electrical power.
  • with be going to for future
    Solar panels are going to be used to generate electrical power.

 

Step 3 Drop the initial active voice subject or put it at the end of the sentence 

Eg.       active voice:  The manager will implement the changes next year.

            passive voice: The changes will be implemented next year.

                        or

            passive voice: The changes will be implement next year by the manager.

            active voice:   Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle in 1927.

            passive voice: The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927. 

                   OR          The uncertainty principle was formulated in 1927 by Werner Heisenberg.

Summary of steps

STEP 1: Move the object to the subject position

STEP 2: Change the verb to the passive

STEP 3: Drop the original subject or move it to the end of the sentence

Passive Voice Activity 2

Change each example from active to passive voice. Type your answer into the box. Do not include the original active voice subject.

1. Johannes Salk developed the first polio vaccine in the 1950s.

CORRECT ANSWER: The first polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s.

2. A South Australian company is launching the first 100% renewable energy utility company.

CORRECT ANSWER: The first 100% renewable energy utility company is being launched.

3. The committee made mistakes.

CORRECT ANSWER: Mistakes were made.

4. ANU scientists have returned the remains of Mungo Man to the traditional owners.

CORRECT ANSWER: The remains of Mungo Man have been returned to the traditional owners.

5. The cabinet has approved the drafting of the legislation.

CORRECT ANSWER: The drafting of the legislation has been approved.

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