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What Is Passive Voice?

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We live in a dynamic world where things are constantly changing as a result of interactions. To describe these interactions, people invented active and passive voices.

  • Active voice points to the subject that acts in the given situation.
  • Passive voice is applied to the object in relation to which this action is carried out.

Learn the features of using a passive voice with cambridge.ua to express your thoughts more clearly.

How to Understand Passive Voice

When a person speaks or writes, they describe reality using words. This means they can place emphasis differently. In reality, everything is simple:

  • The subject acts.
  • The object experiences action from the subject.

However, when a person describes this interaction, they can put the object of the action in the place of the subject of the sentence. The result is a passive voice, in which the non-acting object is placed at the focus of the sentence.

Example of Using the Passive Voice

Let’s look at an example of the simplest interaction between subject and object. 

  • For example, looking out the window in winter, you can state the following fact: Snow is falling on my car. This sentence uses an active voice because the snow does some action.
  • The next morning, looking out the window, you will notice something else: My car is covered in snow. Now, the passive voice comes into play, since the car was not the active subject in this situation. It was simply experiencing the effects of the snowfall.

How to Construct a Passive Voice in a Sentence

If you need to focus on an object undergoing an action on the part of some subject, use the following formula:

  • one of the forms of “to be” + past participle

The form of “to be” is selected depending on the tense of the verb and can be different: is, was, has been, had been, will be, will have been, etc.

How to Emphasize the Subject of Action

Where is the place of the subject of action with a passive voice? As a rule, the subject of an action is indicated using the preposition “by” or “with.” It shows who or what carried out the action. However, not every sentence with a passive voice points to an active subject.

Example:

  • Without subject of action: The store window was brightly lit.
  • With the subject of the action: The store window was brightly lit by the sun. Or: The store window was brightly lit with neon lights.

Why Writers Prefer to Avoid the Passive Voice

When reading tips for aspiring journalists or bloggers, you will come across advice to avoid a passive voice. Why is it bad in written language?

  • An active voice expresses action clearly and concisely.
  • The passive voice is more difficult to construct from a grammatical point of view, so it can give sentences a more unclear meaning. In addition, a person constantly uses various forms of “to be” in such a case. This leads to overuse of “to be” and wordiness in sentences.

To change this situation, simply identify who or what is the subject of the sentence and focus on it.

  • Passive voice: My car is covered in snow.
  • Active voice: Snow covered my car.

When You Can’t Do Without a Passive Voice

Still, despite some criticism of passive voice, in some situations, it is the best solution. This concerns those facts that are obvious, but it is unknown who exactly carried out this action. 

  • For example: The medieval fortress was destroyed around the 17th century. The wooden shutters were burned. Stones were knocked out, and narrow tunnels were made underground.

In this case, historians have not established who exactly did it. Of course, it would be possible to use another formulation, turning this into an active voice, but this passage would look ridiculous:

  • Someone destroyed the medieval fortress around the 17th century. They burned shutters, knocked out stones, and made narrow tunnels underground.

This version may distort the facts since all these events could have happened at different times as a result of the actions of different actors.

When choosing which voice to use, try to replace passive with active. If this is easy, you will add more clarity and ease of reading to your text.

If the substitution changes the meaning of the sentence or misleads the reader, use a passive voice. It will add deeper shades to the content and make it more varied.

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