What is the Passive Voice?
Aaahh… the Passive. The passive voice can be the thorn in the side of any English learner, native or non-native, and even English teachers. Although we encounter the passive voice more than we think, when we are presented with it formally, sometimes it seems as though it is impossible to understand. However, there are times when the passive voice is all that really makes sense. Before we can effectively use it we first have to understand why we use it.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS THE PASSIVE VOICE?
In English there are two voices we use in speech and writing: the Active voice and the Passive voice. Here are examples of each.
Can you decide which is the passive?
- Someone stole my car.
- My car was stolen.
If you guessed the second sentence you’re absolutely correct!
Although both sentences express the very same information, one actually expresses the thought much more effectively, the passive voice.
WHY IS THE PASSIVE VOICE SO EFFECTIVE?
Well, in the first sentence, the active sentence, the subject is ‘someone’, meaning that I do not know who stole my car but obviously someone did. But, all the focus of the statement is given to ‘someone’, a nameless, faceless person. The important information, the fact that my car was stolen, is secondary to the subject.
In the second sentence, the passive example, the focus has shifted from ‘someone’ to my car. My car has now become the subject of the sentence. Afterall, what I am actually trying to express and what is really important is that my car is missing.
Notice that in the passive sentence I do not mention the ‘someone’ who stole my car. Why not?
Well, simply because I do not know who stole it.
Although, if I wanted to I could continue my sentence and say: ‘My car was stolen by someone’. The meaning remains exactly the same, only now I have made the extra effort to clarify that I do not know who stole my car.
SO WHY DO WE USE THE PASSIVE?
There are a few reasons to use the passive voice.
- As I have already illustrated above, we use the passive when an action has been performed but we do not know who or what performed it.
- Sometimes we know who/what did the action but for whatever reason we do not want to say.
Ex: I’ve been invited to the biggest party of the year!
You know who invited you but perhaps you don’t want to mention to your bestfriend that the person who invited you is Bobby, the guy she has had a secret crush on since she was 10 years old. Afterall, your friend may get jealous and ask you not to go to the party. In this case, it’s best not to say, “Bobby invited me to the biggest party of the year”!
- When it is obvious or understood who performed the action we often choose not to mention it.
Ex: He was given a promotion at work.
Obviously the only person who could give you a promotion at work is your boss so it isn’t necessary to say, “ My boss gave me a promotion at work”.
- When the person or thing performing the action has already been mentioned in the conversation.
Ex: My grandfather built the house I grew up in. It was built in 1926.
I have already made it clear as to what I am speaking about, the house that my grandfather built. I don’t need to say, “My grandfather built the house I grew up in. My grandfather built it in 1926.”
Would you like to see the Passive Voice in action? Check out these videos that show the Passive Voice being used in some clips of your favorite TV shows: