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grammar  >  passive voice




subject + verb be + past participle

The rubbish is collected every day.
My suit is being cleaned.



Examples to come

Form of the passive voice

 


The passive voice is made with the auxiliary verb to be and the past participle.
The auxiliary shows the tense.
The rubbish is collected every day. (present simple)
My suit is being cleaned. (present continuous)
He was invited to the party. (past simple)
The building was being renovated. (past continuous)
Two men have been arrested. (present perfect)
She had been interviewed earlier in the day. (past perfect)
Your request will be dealt with shortly. (will future)
Cars must not be parked here. (modal present)
It must have been stolen. (modal perfect)
Agents and subjects

 


In English grammar, the agent is the person or thing that performs an action. In an active (not passive) sentence, the agent is usually the subject.

Jane wrote the letter.

In this example, the subject of the sentence Jane is also the agent. The object is the letter. If we change this into a passive sentence, the object is placed at the beginning and becomes the subject.

The letter was written by Jane.

Jane is still the agent but not the subject. The subject is nowThe letter.
In a passive sentence, it is not always necessary to include the agent. Imagine another, similar, sentence with more information.

Jane sent the letter yesterday.

We can change this into the passive as follows:

The letter was sent by Jane yesterday.

If it is not important to mention the agent (Jane) we can leave it out.

The letter was sent yesterday.

This might be quite natural in a real-life situation. Someone might want to know when a letter was sent but not who sent it. This is a common reason for using the passive voice.
Reasons for using the passive voice (1): unknown, obvious or unimportant agent

 


As we have seen above, it is not always necessary to mention the agent in a passive sentence. Sometimes the agent is unknown.

My bike has been stolen.

Sometimes the agent is obvious.

The windows are cleaned once a week.

We don't need to say The windows are cleaned once a week by the window cleaners. It is obvious that the window cleaners clean the windows. In this example, the agent is also unimportant as we are interested in when the windows are cleaned, not who cleans them.
Reasons for using the passive voice (2): to focus on the most important information

 


Which of these two sentences is better?

J K Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books.
The Harry Potter books were written by J K Rowling.

Of course, the answer is that it depends which is more important in the context, J K Rowling or the Harry Potter Books.
If you are writing a paragraph about J K Rowling, the first example is likely to be better; if you are focusing on the books, the second is probably a better choice. In both cases the agent is mentioned as it is important information.
Reasons for using the passive voice (3): to continue with the same subject

 


Consider the example below:

Three men broke into the National Museum last night. They stole over twenty famous paintings and escaped in white van. Police officers caught them as they were driving to the airport.

There are no grammar errors in this paragraph but the style is awkward. This is because the subject changes in the last sentence from three men to police officers.
It would be better to say, they were caught by police officers as they were driving to the airport because we prefer to continue with the same subject where possible.

Compare the following pairs of examples:

The electric light bulb has changed the lives of millions. Edison invented it in the late 19th century.
The electric light bulb has changed the lives of millions. It was invented by Edison in the late 19th century.

The company has announced its latest smartphone, the Galactic 8. They will release it next month.
The company has announced its latest smartphone, the Galactic 8. It will be released next month.

First the grapes are picked and put into plastic tubs. Then we take them to the winery and press them.
First the grapes are picked and put into plastic tubs. Then they are taken to the winery and pressed.


In each case, the second example sounds better as the same subject is used for the second sentence.
Reasons for using the passive voice (4): personal and impersonal communication

 


Imagine you read the following notice in a hotel:

You must settle your bill before departure.

Imagine you received the following letter with your electric bill:

You must pay this bill by 31 July, otherwise we will cut off your electricity supply.

There are no grammar errors in these sentences but they appear very direct and rude.
In cases like these, the passive is a better choice because it is less personal.

All bills must be settled before departure.
This bill must be paid by 31 July, otherwise the electricity supply will be disconnected.


However, sometimes a more personal tone is preferable. Consider the following:

I will follow up your inquiry and let you know the outcome as soon as possible.
Your inquiry will be dealt with and you will be informed of the outcome as soon as possible.

The first example is more personal and thus more reassuring than the second. Very often, the choice depends on who is writing. If the writer is communicating personally with the recipient, the passive voice can sound cold and unhelpful, but in the case of impersonal notices, the passive is commonly used.

Your instructions have been processed.
Your order has been received.
Your results will be sent out on 1 November.