short passive (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

short passive
The short passive expression "mistakes were made" is "such a glaring effort to absolve oneself of culpability that it has become a national joke--what the political journalist Bill Schneider called the 'past exonerative' tense" (Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, 2015). (benstevens/Getty Images)


In English grammar, a short passive is a sentence construction in the passive voice in which the subject is absent altogether rather than reduced to a prepositional phrase introduced by by.

The short passive (also known as the agentless passive) is the most common type of passive construction in English.

Examples and Observations:

  • "I was selected, after my very first tour of squadron duty, to become one of the youngest candidates for the test pilot school."
    (American astronaut Alan Shepard)

  • In 2012, in a chimney in Bletchingley, England, coded messages were found in a capsule attached to the skeleton of a World War II carrier pigeon.

  • "I was ordered to arrest the cat for high treason."
    (General Audebert, Merry Christmas, 2005)

  • "If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn't show up."
    (Dr. Seuss)

  • An Implicit Agent
    "The short passive is used because the agent is not to be mentioned explicitly, either because its identity is unknown, unimportant, or evident from the context. An example (from Thompson, 1987, originally from Givon, 1979) is given below:
    I left under circumstances of considerable honor. I was given a farewell luncheon by half the staff of the law firm, meaning the lawyers themselves. I was asked to make a speech and I was much applauded.
    In this example, it can safely be inferred that the people who host the luncheon are the people who ask the narrator to give a speech. Choosing the passive allows for a chain of three sentences with the same topic. Note that the passive is not 'agentless' . . .; the agent is simply implicit. . . . The short passive allows for a non-agent to take the position of the topic in the sentence and for minimalizing the visibility of the agent."
    (Anja Wanner, Deconstructing the English Passive. Mouton de Gruyter, 2009)

  • The Evasive Passive
    "Avoid using the passive voice unethically to hide responsibility. For example, an instructor who says, 'Your assignments could not be graded because of scheduling difficulties,' might be trying to evade the truth: 'I did not finish grading your assignments because I was watching CSI."
    (Randall Vandermey et al., The College Writer: A Guide to Thinking, Writing, and Researching, 3rd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

  • The Academic Passive
    "Agentless passives are . . . characteristic of the impersonal (some would argue pretentious) style found in a lot of academic writing, particularly from science. And because it is reminiscent of more prestigious registers, it can have the effect of making even the most simple and mundane things sound complex and profound. Pia Herbert has given us a wonderful anecdote. Amidst all the excitement and media hype surrounding the release of the brand new Plain English version of the Melbourne Metropolitan Planning Scheme the following carefully drafted departmental memo appeared out of the offices of the former City of Fitzroy in Melbourne. It concerned council rubbish collection.
    Refuse and rubbish shall not be collected from the site or receptacles thereon before the hour of 8:00 am or after the hour of 6:00 pm of any day.
    Some linguistic habits die hard!"
    (Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, Introducing English Grammar, 2nd ed. Hodder, 2010)

  • The Vague Passive
    "[T]he short passive, despite its convenience, leaves an uneasy feeling: it opens up an area of vagueness that can simply be skated over (as most of us do in everyday usage), but that can be explored and exploited for their own ends by writers who take seriously the question of whether writing is a good map of reality."
    (J. M. Coetzee, "The Rhetoric of the Passive in English." Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, ed. by David Attwell. Harvard University Press, 1992)