7 Examples of Valid Passive Construction

By Mark Nichol

One of the easiest principles of grammar to remember is to avoid the passive voice, or passive construction, but it’s just as essential to recall that this rule is not absolute. Passive construction has its place. Appropriate uses are described below.

Passive constructions are those in which the acted-on noun, rather than the word(s) denoting the actor, is the subject of the sentence, as in the last sentence of the lead paragraph of this post. The well-founded prejudices against the passive include that such constructions are usually less concise than those organized in the active voice, that they obscure the identity of the actor, and that they upend traditional English syntax.

But the passive voice is relevant in the following cases:

1. When the emphasis is on the acted-on, not the actor: “The message was conveyed by the courier.”

2. When the actor is not pertinent or is implied: “The defendant was found not guilty.”

3. When the actor cannot be identified: “The dog was poisoned.”

4. When the actor should not (or does not wish to) be identified: “Mistakes were made.”

5. When an extensive description of the actor follows the mention of the actor: “The alternative was suggested by John Smith, the consultant hired to analyze the problem and recommend solutions.” (The active construction, “John Smith, the consultant hired to analyze the problem and recommend solutions, suggested the alternative” changes the emphasis.)

6. When revealing the actor’s identity should be delayed: “The candelabra was moved by the only guest who had the opportunity during that time — the professor!”

7. When the passive voice improves the rhetorical impact: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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12 Responses to “7 Examples of Valid Passive Construction”

  • johnesh

    The “well-founded” prejudices against the passive are nothing of the sort. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the passive voice… ever.

  • venqax

    johnesh:

    The author enumerates some bases for avoiding such constructions. Specifically they:

    1) are usually less concise than those organized in the active voice
    2) obscure the identity of the actor
    3) upend traditional English syntax

    Are you able to object with more (or any) substance than, “nuh-uh’?

  • Roberta B.

    Good examples. Thank you.

  • Sally

    johnesh’ point, venqax – and I totally agree – is not to attack Mark, but to attack the idiotic principle that one should “avoid the passive voice.”

    What we are *all* saying is something to the effect that “most verbs can be used actively or passively. The circumstances under which one will use either Active or Passive Voice vary.”

  • venqax

    Sally: How could you possibly infer what johnesh’s point was. He doesn’t make one. “The circumstances under which one will use either Active or Passive Voice vary.” isn’t what johnesh said. You did.

    johnesh humbly opined, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the passive voice… ever.” No elucidation. No contextual reference. Just a statement of opinion-as-if-it-were fact. What MN says in the article is that it’s one of the principles of grammar to avoid the passive voice.And, inarguably, it is. And it has been for a very long time.

    That principle is called idiotic and not “well-founded” by you and johnesh respectively. But no indication why is given by you. Is it a “feeling” or is there something more substantive that might be offered by you?

  • Warsaw Will

    8. So as to start a new clause/sentence with ‘old, given, familiar’ information from the previous one, and put new information towards the end of the new clause/sentence (end-weighting) – ‘We went to visit the Taj Mahal and were shown round by a really knowledgeable guide.’

    @venqax – This so-called ‘principle’ seems to stem largely from ‘The Elements of Style’ by William J Strunk and an essay by George Orwell, entitled ‘Politics and the English Language’, where he says ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’, and has since been elevated into a rule mainly by American English departments. It is more or less totally ignored in EFL/ESL teaching.

    One of Strunk’s main comments – “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.” – strangely enough is in the passive. And Orwell’s essay is full of the passive. Those who gave us this ‘principle’ didn’t even follow it themselves, and many of those who criticise the use of the passive don’t even know what it is; this is from the BBC style guide –

    “Compare these examples. The first is in the passive, the second active:

    ‘There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.’
    ‘Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.’ ”

    But of course the first example is not in the passive at all. Much of the criticism of the passive is not only at odds with the way we process information, but is grammatically ignorant. All this has been well documented by linguists like Steven Pinker and at the excellent Language Log.

  • venqax

    Warsaw Will: That it is an immense improvement over the johnesh whinery! I’m sure you would be thanked by him if it were understood by him how his feelings were expressed by you. Unfortunately, people who walk with their eyes closed can’t thank you for opening doors for them unless someone tells them to. Obviously the passive voice is used by all us frequently and often purposely.

  • Lauren @ Pure Text Editing

    Good post. Great examples. Some topics need to be covered more than once.

    I appreciate this site and hope it stays up and running for a long time. 🙂

  • Warsaw Will

    @venqax – “I’m sure you would be thanked by him if it were understood by him how his feelings were expressed by you” – I hope you were just being mischievous there. The only people who concoct sentences like this are anti-passive campaigners like Strunk – “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.” Or Stephen King – “My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.” . These are supposedly meant to show us how bad the passive is, but nobody in their right mind would use the passive in that kind of sentence in real life. As arguments against the passive, these are total non-starters.

    But if you want a smile, I highly recommend a section of Raymond Quenau’s ‘Exercises in Style’ entitled ‘Passives’ – “Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon”. But unlike Strunk and King, he was having a laugh.

  • venqax

    Warsaw Will: Intended just as humor. As I concluded, “the passive voice is used by all us frequently and often purposely.” Although we would hope not so clumsily. My point was only that while the passive voice is perfectly legitimate to use at times, it is not true that “There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the passive voice… ever.” as the graffito from the earlier poster claimed.

  • Lafayette Smyre

    Hello,
    The past few days haven’t received daily email from DWT. Enjoy your mails which put a new twist on sometimes puzzling grammar. The posts concerning sentence structure are must reads. Have several stored.
    Please correct what ever is halting your mails. In the event the problem lay with my account, please help me to reconnect.

    Thank You,

    Brownbare

  • Steve

    @Warsaw Will, and I suppose indirectly @venqax, Thank you.

    I was searching online for examples and a definition of passive construction. I was told in a corrected comments section of a paper I recently wrote, that if I wanted to change/correct anything, it would be to try and avoid the passive. In doing so, the information that you (Warsaw) posted gave me immense insight and general knowledge on the subject. I am going to assume I will run into this issue more and more as my education progress and will be referencing those works often. Thank you.

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