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When to use passive verbs (and when to avoid them)

What are passive verbs? 

You can recognize passive forms of verbs by looking for a form of be (e.g. am, was, were, etc.) preceding the past participle of the main verb (beat in the below example):

France beat Brazil in the final. [active]

Brazil were beaten by France in the final. [passive]

These two examples convey different messages. In the first, France is the grammatical subject performing the action of the verb beat. In the second, the grammatical object of the active sentence—Brazil—is the subject of the passive was beaten.

The subject of the active sentence (France) can be expressed as an ‘agent’ (the person/thing doing the action) introduced by the preposition by. However, very often the agent is left out altogether:

Brazil were beaten in the final.

Some say the passive is always wrong, but they’re wrong

Many editors and usage guides suggest avoiding passive constructions altogether. Such a broad-brush prohibition is not helpful (although, as detailed below, you should avoid passive constructions in certain situations). Passive constructions give a different focus to an event (Churchill’s famous ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ would have been much less dramatic as an active construction). Additionally, in science writing, passive constructions help achieve scientific objectivity.

How passive constructions can be useful

The first element in sentences usually introduces your topic—the person or thing you wish to talk about—and passive constructions allow you to highlight that element. Our first example makes France the topic, while its passive version makes Brazil the topic. The passive version focuses on who is affected by the action rather than the doer, or on the process rather than the participants. Passives are often used, and very useful, in the following cases:

 (1) If agent is unknown:

 The dress was stolen from the hotel room;

Bring the pesticide material in for identification and disposal if the label has been removed from its container.

 

(2) If it is not important who or what the specific agent is:

 All her life she had been told that she was beautiful. 

 

(3) If the agent has already been mentioned:

 They were shooting everybody. I felt a pain in my shoulder and a man told me I was hit.

 

 (4) If the agent is obvious or easily deduced from context:

 He speaks of the case of a young student who is being treated for depression.

 

(5) If people in general are the agents:

 Adult beetles can be obtained from several sources. [i.e. people in general can obtain them]

 

(6) If it is tactful or politic not to mention the agent:

 I don’t oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed.

(said by Barack Obama, while still a Senator)

 

(7) If you want to report an opinion or statement without saying whose it is. Often, the passive forms of verbs such as allege, announce, claim, etc., are used, either in an ‘impersonal passive’, with ‘it’ as the subject, or with the person or thing referred to as the subject of the verb:

 It has been alleged that some officers in the City Police Force accepted bribes.

Some officers in the City Police Force are alleged to have accepted bribes.

 

There would be no obvious advantage in writing our examples with active verbs. To rephrase (1) ...if the label has been removed from its container as ...if someone has removed the label from its container inappropriately shifts the focus from the label to the unidentified agent. Similarly, to rewrite (2) as All her life people had told her... shifts the focus away from the woman being mentioned.

In ordinary prose, passives are uncommon. In scientific work, they are still a main constituent, even though research shows that many professionals prefer technical writing with fewer passives.

When to avoid passive verbs 

Be aware that using the passive to avoid specifying who will do or has done something can amount to a denial of responsibility or culpability. Note the difference, for example, between:

 Mistakes have been made. [passive]

and

 We have made mistakes. [active]

The first may be appropriate, even diplomatic, as a statement about someone else’s mistakes, but as a comment on one’s own mistakes it might be considered pusillanimous.

Another instance where you might choose to avoid the passive is if you are responsible for something that is praiseworthy. For example, if you replace Delays have been tackled effectively by the team with the active The team has tackled delays effectively you make it more personal and can take credit for what you have achieved.

When editing your writing you should scrutinize any passive forms of verbs in order to assess their appropriateness. Most grammar checkers flag passives, but before deciding whether to change them, it is worth considering whether they fall into the categories mentioned above.

Back to Grammar tips.

You may also be interested in:

Dangling participles

Verbs with two different past tense forms

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