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When To Use the Passive Voice

October 17th, 2012

In English, there is a passive and active voice or manner of conveying an idea.  The most common of the voices is active voice.  In active voice, the subject is responsible for the action happening in the sentence.  For example: I kick the ball.  This sentence clearly states that I am the person responsible for the ball’s movement.  This sentence also clearly states that the ball is the recipient of my action against it.  Another example of active voice is: The cat spilled the water.  This clearly indicates that the cat is the subject and the one performing the verb.  It also clearly shows that the water is the direct object receiving the action of the cat spilling it.  Passive voice, however, functions differently from active voice and the format or formula of the sentence is usually different from that of an active voice sentence.  To change a sentence from active voice to passive voice, you must follow these steps.

Active voice formula:  
subject + verb + object.

Change the places of the subject and the object. Now you have:  
object + verb + subject.

Add the helping verb “to be” before the main verb:  
object + to be + verb + subject.

Change the main verb to a participle and the subject to an indirect object:  
object + to be + participle + indirect object.

Add the preposition by before the subject:
object + to be + participle + by + indirect object.

Native English-speakers use the passive voice, at times, without reason.  Some people think it sounds more formal to use passive voice.  With the four steps shown above, you can understand the meaning of a passive voice sentence, even though it is not in a format you usually understand.

He threw the ball.

The ball threw he.

The ball was threw he.

The ball was thrown him.

The ball was thrown by him.

In this example, the ball becomes the main idea, not the man. Was is the appropriate form of to be because the sentence is in the past and it describes the third person ball. Thrown is the participle of to throw. He becomes him because he is only used actively, not in a passive sentence.

This example shows the use of the passive voice without reason. However, there are three, clear reasons why the passive voice is commonly used in the English language.  In these three scenarios, there is no active subject or person involved.

We don’t know enough information. In this scenario, we cannot explain who is responsible for the action in the sentence.  For example: My purse was stolen! The woman doesn’t know who stole her purse, but she knows her purse is gone.  She cannot say, “A man stole my purse” because she does not know for sure if it was a man or woman.  In this example, we do not have a subject to add to the end of the sentence because we do not have enough information.

I don’t want someone to know. In this scenario, I did something bad or wrong and I do not want other people to know what I did.  Situation: Friends are together at a party and there is only one piece of cake left.  I decide to eat the cake when no one is looking.  A friend asks me, “Where is the cake?”, I say, “All the cake was eaten.”  In this example, I do not have to take responsibility for eating the last piece of cake.  I can change the focus of my sentence to the cake and not focus on a subject, like I.

When it’s not important. Sometimes, it’s not important to know who did something.  For example: This building was built in 1965. We don’t know who built it, but we know it is a building and somebody created it.  Sometimes, it is not important to know who did what.

One last reason why we use the passive voice is to describe an author of a book or creator of a movie.  We use this because the movie or book is the main idea, so it comes first in the sentence.  We, also, want to know about the person who created it, so we put “by John” after the title of the movie or book.