Grammar Definitions: What is Passive Voice?

When the subject of a sentence or clause receives the action of a verb

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In traditional grammar, the term passive voice refers to a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb. (For example, the sentence "A good time was had by all" is constructed with a passive voice, in contrast with "Everyone had a good time," which is constructed using an active voice.)

In Defense of the Passive Voice

Linguist Jane R. Walpole, who has authored several books on the subject of grammar believes that the passive voice can be a valuable tool if used correctly. "Indiscriminate slandering of the passive voice ought to be stopped," she writes. "The passive should be recognized as a quite decent and respectable structure of English grammar, neither better nor worse than other structures. When it is properly chosen, wordiness and obscurity are no more increased than when the active voice is properly chosen. Its effective and appropriate use can be taught."

Passive Voice Examples

Though many style guides discourage the use of the passive voice, the construction can be quite effective, especially when the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant. Passive constructions can also enhance cohesion. Here are some good examples:

"[Fern] found an old milking stool that had been discarded, and she placed the stool in the sheepfold next to Wilbur's pen."—from "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White
"America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else...America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy."—from "The Oxford History of the American People" by Samuel Eliot Morison
"Her bones were found
round thirty years later
when they razed
her building to
put up a parking lot."
—"Chicken-Licken" by Maya Angelou from "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well"
"In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move."—from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
"Fiction was invented the day Jonas arrived home and told his wife that he was three days late because he had been swallowed by a whale."—Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Pandora, from Greek mythology, was given a box with all the world's evils in it."—from "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch
"The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the gare Saint-Lazare."—"Passive" from "Exercises in Style" by Raymond Queneau

Evasive Use of the Passive Voice

Noted Chicago-based journalist Sydney J. Harris, best remembered for his long-running weekday column, “Strictly Personal," wryly noted that the use of the passive voice as a vehicle with which to make excuses is a sign of immaturity. "We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice—that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it,' " he observed.

And yet, the practice is common enough, especially in the world of politics, as evidenced by these "mistakes were made" disclaimers:

"[W]hen [New Jersey Governor Chris Christie] said 'mistakes were made,' did he know he was quoting Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, or did that particular obfuscatory use of the passive voice just pop into his head?"—Katha Pollitt, "Christie: A Bully’s Bully." The Nation, February 3, 2014
"Mistakes were made. I didn't make them."—Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., on the Watergate scandals, January 1981
"We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so."—President Ronald Reagan, regarding the Iran-Contra affair, January 1987
"Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”—Chief of Staff John Sununu, when caut using government military aircraft for personal trips, December 1991
"Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently."—President Bill Clinton, when it was discovered that he had invited the country's senior banking regulator to a meeting with the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser, January 1997
"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here."—Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, March 2007

Proper Uses of Passive Voice in Journalism

Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald, authors of "When Words Collide," a grammar and usage guide for media writing, suggest that there are two situations in which the passive voice must be used for journalistic purposes.

The first is when "the receiver of the action is more important than the creator of the action." This is the example they cite:

"A priceless Rembrandt painting was stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday by three men posing as janitors."

Here, even though it receives the action, the painting remains the subject of the sentence because a Rembrandt is more important than the thieves who stole it.

The second compelling use for the passive voice in journalism when a writer simply doesn't know who the person or thing responsible for creating an action is. This is the example they cite:

"The cargo was damaged during the trans-Atlantic flight."

Here, there's no way to know what caused the damage. Was it turbulence? Vandalism? Human error? Since there can be no answer (at least without further investigation), the passive voice must be used.

True Passives, Semi-Passives, Passive Gradient

The most common form of the passive in English is the short passive or agentless passive: a construction in which the agent (i.e, the one who performers an action) is not identified. For example, "Promises were made." In a long passive, the object of the verb in an active sentence becomes the subject.

According to linguist Christopher Beedham, statistics indicate that about four-fifths of the occurrences of passive voice lack a "by-phrase," however, in the active construction, subjects are required—meaning there can be no active sentences that don't have a subject.

"So where do all these passives with no agent come from whereby the agent is unknown?" he asks. "Not from an underlying active, obviously. It is common practice to assume a 'dummy' subject in such cases, equivalent to 'someone,' i.e. underlying My house was burgled is the sentence Someone burgled my house. But that is stretching a point beyond credibility."

For the answer, Beedham refers to the authoritative reference text "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language." Citing the following examples, he explains that the way to get past this problem is by using a 'passive gradient' along with the concept of the semi-passive:

  • This violin was made by my father.
  • This conclusion is hardly justified by the results.
  • Coal has been replaced by oil.
  • This difficulty can be avoided in several ways.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

  • We are encouraged to go on with the project.
  • Leonard was interested in linguistics.
  • The building is already demolished.
  • The modern world is getting more highly industrialized and mechanized.
  • My uncle was/got/seemed tired.

"The dotted line indicates the break between real passives and semi-passives," he says. "Those above the line are real passives, those below the line are increasingly remote from the ideal passive with a unique active paraphrase, and are not real passives at all—they are semi-passives."

Rise of the "Get"-Passive

Often the passive voice is formed by using the appropriate form of the verb to be (for example, is) and a past participle (for example, formed). However, passive constructions aren't always made up of be and a past participle. The "get"-passive construction has become increasingly popular.

"The passive in English is usually formed with the verb to be, yielding 'they were fired' or 'the tourist was robbed,'" explains noted American linguist and author Arika Okrent. "But we also have the 'get' passive, giving us 'they got fired' and 'the tourist got robbed.'

She goes on to say that while the get-passive dates back at least 300 years, its use has seen a marked increase over the last 50 years. "It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject—getting fired, getting robbed—but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger."

Sources

  • Walpole, Jane R. "Why Must the Passive Be Damned?" College Composition and Communication. 1979
  • Beedham, Christopher. "Language And Meaning: The Structural Creation of Reality." John Benjamins. 2005
  • Okrent, Arika. "Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They're Happening." The Week. June 27, 2013
  • Knight, Robert M. "A Journalistic Approach to Good Writing: The Craft of Clarity." Second Edition. Iowa State Press. 2003
  • Kessler, Lauren; McDonald, Duncan. "When Words Collide." Eighth Edition. Wadsworth, 2012
  • Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey N.; Svartvik, Jan. "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". Pearson Education ESL. February 1989