The Passive Voice

The passive voice is used in scientific writing, in lab reports and journal articles, and technical writing as the methods used and results obtained are more important than the person who did the experiments. For example:

  • I finished the experiment last night. – Active sentence, the subject is ‘I’.
  • The experiment was finished last night. – Passive sentence, the subject is ‘the experiment’.

In the active form the subject of the sentence does something to an object, while in a passive form the subject of the sentence has something done to it.

  • James wrote the best essay. – Here the subject ‘James’ does something (writes) to the object ‘the (best) essay’.
  • The best essay was written by James. – Here the subject ‘the (best) essay’ does not do anything; something is done to it (written by James).

The passive form uses the auxiliary verb ‘be’ with the past participle.

Academic writing should be written in the passive voice.

To show who does the action in a passive sentence use the expression ‘by ____’, to show who or what does the action. A passive sentence does not always need to show the doer of the action.

  • Susan fixed the computer problem. – Active sentence.
  • The computer problem was fixed, by Susan. – Passive sentence showing the doer of the action.
  • The computer problem was fixed. – Passive sentence not showing the doer of the action.

The first passive sentence above would be used if it was important to know that it was Susan who foxed the problem. However, if the problem getting fixed is the most important thing, the second passive sentence would be better as Susan’s part in the process is not important.

Passive sentences can only be used with transitive verbs, those that take objects, and cannot be used with intransitive verbs, those which have no subject

The infinitive form of a verb (e.g. to see, to swim) cannot be used as the subject in the passive form, only in the active form.



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