The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 08 June 2023

passive voice

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Jeremy ButterfieldJeremy Butterfield

passive voice. 

  1. 1 Overview and recommendation.

  2. 2 Grammar and terminology.

  3. 3 Standard uses.

  4. 4 In scientific writing.

  5. 5 Criticized uses.

  6. 6 The double passive.

  7. 7 Passive of avail oneself of.

1 Overview and recommendation.

Despite a generalized view, a superstition almost, among some editors that the passive voice is to be avoided under any circumstances, it supplies a useful means of achieving a different focus on an event from that provided by the active voice. (Imagine how undramatic Churchill’s ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ would be in the active voice.) The many legitimate and irreproachable uses of the passive are described in 3. Additionally, in scientific writing the passive is seen as a crucial means of achieving objectivity. However, overuse of the passive in formal non-scientific writing often leads to wordiness, or worse, as 5 (b) and 6 illustrate. If you find yourself writing a passive sentence which does not fit any of the patterns outlined at 3, ask yourself if you could just as easily express it in the active. In particular, you should ask yourself if you are evading personal ownership of the event, opinion, or statement you are writing about.

2 Grammar and terminology.

  1. (a) France beat Brazil in the final is ‘active’ and Brazil were beaten by France in the final is its ‘passive’ equivalent. In the first, France performs the action of the verb, and its grammatical object Brazil is affected by the action. In the second, the grammatical object of the active sentence has become the subject of the passive verb was beaten and the subject of the active sentence is expressed as an ‘agent’ (the person or thing who does the action) introduced by the preposition by. Sentences containing an active form of the verb are in the ‘active voice’; those containing a passive verb form are in the ‘passive voice’.

  2. (b) Passive forms of verbs consist of the appropriate tense of be, and the past participle of the main verb (beat in the above example). In many passive sentences the agent (i.e. France) is not expressed. Our example sentence could be rewritten as Brazil were beaten in the final. Sentences of that kind are called ‘agentless passives’. The agentless passive is a useful device in the circumstances discussed at 3 below.

  3. (c) In written English only about half the notional forms of passives occur with any frequency (is taken, was taken, will be taken, may be taken, has been taken, is being taken, etc.); in spoken English other parts of the paradigm occur somewhat more frequently (may have been taken, may be being taken), and even the most extended forms (has been being taken, may have been being taken) are occasionally used in spoken English without causing undue inconvenience to the listener.

3 Standard uses.

  1. (a) Passive verbs allow you to describe the same event as in an active sentence from a different viewpoint: our example sentence makes France the topic of the sentence, the thing you are going to talk about, while its passive version makes Brazil the topic. Since it is usually the first element in a sentence that introduces your topic, passive verbs allow you to highlight the person or thing affected by the action, rather than the doer of the action. They also make it possible to concentrate on the process rather than on the participants.

  2. (b) There are perfectly valid reasons for using a passive verb form. (i) The agent is unknown: President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; Bring the pesticide material in for identification and disposal if the label has been removed from its container. (ii) It is not important who or what the agent is: Additionally, all penetrations, such as electrical outlets and light switches, should be carefully sealed; All my life I have been told I am nothing. That I will always be a lowlife, scum, a peasant. (iii) The agent has already been mentioned. They were shooting everybody. I felt a pain in my shoulder and a man told me I was hit. (iv) It is obvious or easily deduced who or what the agent is: He speaks of the case of a young student who is being treated for depression; Charged with sedition, Blake was tried and acquitted the following year. (v) People in general are the agents: Adult beetles can be obtained from several sources; It has not been explained, however, why Swedish social democrats chose to do this. (vi) It is tactful or politic not to mention the agent: I don’t oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed—Barack Obama, as Senator, 2 October, 2002. (vii) You report an opinion or statement but wish to avoid saying whose opinion or statement it is. The passive is often used with verbs such as accept, agree, allege, announce, claim, etc., either in an ‘impersonal passive’, with ‘it’ as the subject, or with the person or thing referred to in the report as the subject of the verb: e.g. it has been alleged that many officers in the Colorado City Police Department are practicing polygamists/Many officers in the…are alleged to be practicing polygamists.

  3. (c) While some of the examples above could be rewritten actively, there is often no clear advantage in doing so. In (i) to rephrase if the label has been removed from its container as if someone has removed the label from its container inappropriately shifts the focus from the label to the agent. Similarly in (ii) to rewrite as All my life, people have told me I am nothing shifts the focus away from the person expressing his or her feelings of inadequacy.

4 In scientific writing.

In scientific writing the passive voice is much more frequent than in ordinary expository or imaginative prose: e.g. the cultures were fixed with 4% paraformaldehyde rather than I/we fixed the cultures with [etc.]; similarly, when DNA molecules are placed on a gel; an electron is scattered once every 1,000 molecules. In ordinary prose true passives are relatively uncommon—usually not more than two on an average page of a book. In scientific work they are a main constituent even though concerted attempts have been made to encourage scientists to use the passive less, and, as reported in the Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004), research showed that a large group of professionals surveyed preferred technical writing with a lower density of passive forms.

5 Criticized uses.

  1. (a) For a long time it has been a staple of usage guides and clear writing manuals and courses that the passive is to be avoided wherever it can be (or that you should avoid the passive wherever you can). Additionally, grammar checkers, such as that in Word, will flag all passives as checkworthy. As one of his six rules for avoiding muddled writing, Orwell wrote ‘Never use the passive where you can use the active’ (Politics and the English Language, 1946). Fowler (1926) had an entry entitled ‘passive disturbances’ with four categories, of which only one, the ‘double passive’ (see 6 below) is still relevant. To those four categories Gowers (1965) added one of his own, which he called the ‘impersonal passive’. By this, he meant sentences such as It is believed that no action should be taken; It is felt that your complaint arises from a misunderstanding. As a senior civil servant no doubt he saw many such examples in correspondence that came his way, so that he was led to write that ‘the impersonal passive…is a construction dear to those who write official and business letters’. ‘It is reasonable enough in statements made at large,’ he continued, giving the example It is understood that the wanted man is wearing a raincoat and a cloth cap, ‘but when one person is addressing another it often amounts to a pusillanimous shrinking from responsibility.’ What Gowers was referring to are the impersonal passive report structures mentioned at 3 (vii). The use or avoidance of such passives depends on the level of formality being aimed at and often on the wisdom of accepting personal or group responsibility for the statement that follows. While it is undoubtedly true that the use of such structures sometimes amounts to a shirking of responsibility, they are also a useful tool for writers wishing or forced to distance themselves from the opinion expressed. The official who wrote Gowers’ second example may have had good reason not to put himself (as it probably was) in the firing line for taking a wrong decision.

  2. (b) The Oxford Guide to Plain English (1995) provides several real-life examples of clumsily phrased passive sentences which would be better with active verb forms. They also illustrate how the passive in business or official letters can lead to other inelegant, wordy, and unnecessarily pompous phrasing. One example is enough to illustrate this: We have been asked by your home insurers to obtain your written confirmation that all their requirements have been completed by yourself is clearer, friendlier, and more personal as Your insurers have asked us to obtain your written confirmation that you have completed all their requirements.

6 The double passive.

  1. (a) In constructions such as the satellite is scheduled to be put into orbit in March or a vast natural garden, which has to be seen to be believed, a passive verb is comfortably followed by a passive infinitive. In a review tribunal is required to be reviewed itself after the first year the double passive begins to obtrude, though the construction is still acceptable. Some grammarians (including Fowler) have condemned constructions in which passive uses of attempt, begin, desire, endeavour, hope, intend, order, propose, purpose, seek, threaten, and a few others, are immediately followed by a passive infinitive, e.g. But the weapons were the pretext on which the invasion was sold to a lot of people in this country, and was attempted to be sold to the people of the world; no greater thrill can be hoped to be enjoyed. Such constructions are awkward because they have no active counterpart, *they attempted the pretext to be sold; *We hope no greater thrill to be enjoyed and should be avoided in favour of sentences in the active voice, or else be rewritten. The OED provides historical examples of the double passive with some of these verbs, e.g. The evils that were intended to be remedied—Bk of Common Prayer, 1662; all classes were threatened to be overwhelmed in one universal ruin—Picture of Liverpool, 1834; Persons who have any interest in lands which are sought to be registered can lodge a caution with the registering officer—Law Times, 1891. There are also modern examples of the condemned group of verbs: e.g. Other records…were taken to Moscow and their contents have been begun to be made available to Western researchers only in the last five years—Chicago Tribune, 1990. But they are relatively uncommon.

  2. (b) A related remnant of this kind of construction (but with ellipsis of to be) remains in standard use in AmE: this is the first time in 30 years a person has been ordered deported for fascist activities—NY Times, 1982. This use is first recorded in AmE in 1781: see order (verb).

7 Passive of avail oneself of.

See avail 3, 4.