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The Passive: Examples

Reasons for using the active or passive voice

In each of the following examples the first construction (passive See the glossary definition ) was the original wording in the source texts. The second construction (active See the glossary definition ) is provided for illustrative purposes and in each case the author's choice of the passive construction was sound for the reasons given in the explanations. It's a good idea to click on the links in order to see these sentences in their original context and see why the choice of the passive in each case contributed to coherence and clarity in the text.

There are a number of reasons for choosing the passive voice:

  1. We wish to highlight what was the object in the active construction and eliminate the agent See the glossary definition (or place it in a less prominent position in a by-phrase). "A more sustainable solution is required" is the last sentence in a paragraph outlining possible solutions to a particular problem (Bansah 2022). The emphasis is on the solution not on the agent so the passive voice with no by-phrase is a good choice. Where the agent is easily understood, irrelevant or unknown it can be omitted. This is common in academic writing. There are other reasons for omitting the agent. For example where blame might be assigned: "Mistakes were made" (but don't blame me!). We don't need an agent in this example; the short passive is the best choice.

  2. Longer clauses tend to be placed towards the end of a sentence. This is the principle of end-weight See the glossary definition . "Stars" is the title of the article (Jeeson-Daniel 2013) which contains this example, and 'stars' are mentioned twice in the two brief paragraphs before this sentence, so we know what the subject is. By now this is not new information; it's given. So apart from the principle of end-weight (longer structures tend to be placed towards the end of a sentence) it also obeys the principle of end-focus See the glossary definition (new information tends to be placed towards the end of a sentence). So the passive construction (long passive See the glossary definition ) is a good choice here.

  3. Given/New See the glossary definition : We tend to place given information towards the beginning of a sentence and new information towards the end. This principle influences our choice of active or passive.
  4. In this example (Fairchild 2019) "It" refers to light, mentioned in the previous two sentences. In fact the whole section concerns light and how it is controlled by the pupil. The word "brain" is mentioned here fro the first and only time, so this is new information. The active version of this sentence could be used since the referent of the word "it" is still easily recoverable. However, the passive version follows the given/new convention and this is the best choice because placing pronouns like "it", "this", "these" at the beginning tells us immediately that the subject is not new information; it is something already mentioned and probably recoverable from the previous sentence.

  5. Verbs commonly used with the passive: Some verbs, especially in academic writing, are more commonly used in the passive. These are verbs which concerned with logical relations, analysis, belief, and process. If, when you are writing an active sentence or converting a passive to an active, you are struggling to find a plausible agent and end up with "we" or "people" as in this example (Dallman 2022), it's a good sign that the passive construction is the best choice.

    In this example (Ritchie 2022) in the active "dingoes" becomes the direct object and "apex predators" is a complement.

    In this example (Skilling 2020) the vague "We" in the active version serves little purpose, which is why the passive version is better.

    In this example (Moro and Stromberga 2020) it is difficult to construct a plausible active version (what could the agent be?); in fact "be positioned" is almost always used in the passive voice.

    In this example (Whittaker 2021) "Engineers" is more specific than "people" but unless the agent needs to be mentioned the passive construction is better.

    In this example (Doyle 2022) "Scientists" is more specific than "people" but unless the agent needs to be mentioned the passive construction is better.

    In this example (Larson and Ogletree 2019) the by-phrase (prepositional phrase) is not the agent; it's an instrument adverbial.

    In this example (Barnett 2015) an agent is given in the passive construction - "some" (by some) meaning "some people". So we can use "Some" or "Some people" as the subject in the active construction.

    In this example (Alexander 2022) we have two verbs: "were regarded as" (prepositional verb See the glossary definition ) and "dismissed". Here there is an example of ellipsis See the glossary definition : the auxiliary "were" is not repeated for "dismissed". In the active version we need to insert the pronoun "them" referring to "tomatoes" because dismissed is a transitive verb and needs an object.

Active or Passive?

You may have been told to avoid using the passive for various reasons or you may have consulted a style guide which advises against its use. But there are sound reasons for using the passive as we have seen above. In academic writing it is essential, so you need to understand when to use it. One other criterion to consider is your audience. If you are writing for younger readers you might have reason to avoid complex structures, including the passive. In this example (Dorssen, Ball, and Rigby 2021) the writer was responding to an eight-year-old. The text is short and is written in a very personal style so the choice of active including a personal pronoun is an acceptable one. There are only two short passive constructions in the text; all the others are active.

Passives are also used in a non-finite form. See examples of these on the non-finite passive constructions page. You can also test your understanding of passives on the passives exercise page.