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Passive Voice Constructions in English Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 25th, 2021

Introduction

As it is known from the English language grammar, the English verb possesses the largest number of characteristics including tense, aspect, number, voice, mood, person; it can be continuous and non-continuous etc. Thus, one can see that the careful study of the grammatical forms of verbs is essentially important to avoid misunderstanding or grammar mistakes that one can face while operating with verbs and making particular transformations with them.

It is surely hard to study all grammatical implications of verb usage in English, and every researcher has to take into consideration all peculiarities of the verb if he or she wants their speech to sound and look correct. It is true that the verb is the main meaningful part of speech in English, so the wrong usage thereof may prevent the speaker from expressing the idea clearly and being understood.

One of the important characteristics of the verb that needs to be understood and studied well is the voice of the verb. There are two voices – active and passive, and there is still much debate over whether they can be equally used or there is still a need to preferably use active voice as compared to the passive voice that has to be avoided. Some researchers of English grammar even state that the frequent use of passive voice forms is considered a grammar mistake. But there is still a question in such a case what the passive voice construction is actually needed for if it is wrong to use it. Thus, one should come to a conclusion that passive voice constructions are also highly necessary, but there are some peculiarities of their use that have to be remembered.

Characteristics and Formation of Passive Voice

The passive voice construction is majorly used when the emphasis in the sentence is made on the action itself but not on the person who does it. To understand the gist of passive voice characteristics it is necessary to compare the following sentences:

  • I wrote this letter – The letter was written by me.
  • I include you in the team of winners – You are included in the team of winners.
  • Students have to fulfill the task carefully – The task should be fulfilled carefully.

The sentences in the active voice emphasize those who did the actions; when these sentences are transformed, the doer loses his or her importance and the action becomes the focus of attention. Thus, it is clear that passive voice constructions are usually used when the doer is absolutely insignificant and can be dropped, or it is necessary to shift the focus of the sentence from the doer to the action itself.

Coming to a conclusion on the characteristics of passive voice usage, it is also relevant to mention the description of the passive voice purpose given by Yates (1996):

“the passive voice is used to shift the emphasis from subject to object. The person who does the action is not the important the important focus of the sentence” (p. 132).

The way in which emphasis is shifted from one part of the sentence’s theme to another one can be illustrated by a number of examples:

  • The builders will finish the construction of this new building in about a month – The house will be finished in about a month (here it is not relevant to think about those who build the house because it is obvious that builders are usually in charge of such duties; but this sentence represents concerns of people about finishing the construction of the house, so the emphasis is made on the action).
  • I dedicate this song to my loving family. – This song is dedicated to my loving family. (If such a sentence is considered in a narrow context it is will be clear that the speaker, who is likely to sing a song, explains to who he or she dedicated it, so it necessary to avoid excessive pronouns).
  • Chemists separate molecules of water to obtain clear hydrogen and oxygen. – Molecules of water are separated to obtain hydrogen and oxygen. (Here the doer is unimportant because it can be anyone who falls into the category of chemists, thus it is not necessary to include the excessive information in the sentence).

However, understanding the implication for the usage of passive voice will not help in its correct usage will be impossible without the sound practical basis of its formation. Passive voice is subject to a firm set of grammar rules and is formed according to some specific laws. Specialists from the Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill outline the procedure of indicating or creating the passive voice constructions:

“Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed” (Passive Voice 2007).

They also formulate the easy structure according to which it will be possible to detect passive voice constructions in the text – “form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice” (Passive Voice 2007). The aspect of passive voice formation that usually causes the most complication is detecting the right person of the verb and putting the auxiliary verb into a correct form. Yates (1996) enumerates the forms of auxiliary verbs that can be used in passive voice constructions of any tenses:

Present tense I am misunderstood
Modals I can be misunderstood
Present Progressive I am being misunderstood
Future I am going to be
I will be
misunderstood
misunderstood
Present Perfect I have been misunderstood
Past I was
I used to be
misunderstood
misunderstood
Past Progressive I was being misunderstood
misunderstood
Past Perfect I had been misunderstood

From these figures it is possible to see how the passive verb forms are formed in any tenses. However, to ensure complete understanding of the correct usage of passive voice verb forms it is necessary to keep in mind a couple of rules that accompany the transformation of sentences from active to passive: the object of the active voice sentence becomes the subject in the passive voice construction; the finite form of the verb is necessarily changed; and the subject of the active voice sentence takes the place of the object, or is simply dropped, since the doer loses its importance in the passive voice constructions (Passive Voice 2006).

Active vs. Passive Voice

There are many opponents of passive voice usage, but still it is impossible to deny that in some cases passive voice renders the sense of the situation much better than it can be done by the active voice phrases. And again, it is necessary to remember that the passive voice construction is always concentrated on the action and not the one committing it. It may also be clear how difference of voice forms chosen for realization of an idea can influence the emphasis in the sentence:

  • You informed me about my failure at the exam too late. – I was informed about my failure too late. (The second sentence appears much softer because the first sentence using the active voice form resembles a harsh accusation, whereas the second sentence only states the fact of late information that affected the speaker’s life in some way).
  • The American continent was discovered in 1492. (The self-evident fact about Christopher Columbus that is known to everyone should not be mentioned in sentence depending on the target audience).

Despite the clear preference given to the active voice structure in the English language it is possible to say that there are still situations in which passive voice is also welcome. The most popular field of usage for passive voice constructions is scientific writing – there are no doers and the person who commits the action is absolutely unimportant. It is also popular to use passive voice in rhetoric constructions because of the absence of the doer. Surely there is some clear difference between the same sentences used both in passive and active forms, so one more table will be highly helpful in understanding the true difference in meaning:

  1. The new vaccine against flu was invented in the laboratory of clinical research in Massachusetts.
  2. Molecules of hydrogen can be aligned in such a way so that a bomb will be enacted.
  3. The genesis of chemistry can be traced to certain practices such as alchemy, the science of studying chemical characteristics of certain substances in pursuit for eternal life elixirs.
  4. Organic compounds are given names according to the scheme of nomenclature existing in the branch.

The effect that the transformation of an active voice form into a passive one has is that the sentence is possible to be made impersonal, which may be at times necessary to conceal the doer, or in case the insignificance of the doer may help in reduction of the word count and escaping abundant and unnecessary structures in the sentence.

  1. I checked and marked your works – The works have been checked and graded.
  2. The government authorities signed the budget for the next year during the today’s session in the White House – The budget was signed…
  3. Everyone refers to economic processes at the overall country’s scale as macroeconomics. – Economic processes… are usually referred to as macroeconomics.

However, at times, the usage of passive constructions without the indication of the doer can cause serious misunderstanding that will prevent the reader or listener from grasping the sense of the described situation, e.g. the sentence “When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage” does not indicate the invaders, and if taken as isolated from the context, the reader will never understand what happened to the woman and why she had to take some action. So the sentence needs to be transformed into “After suitors invaded her house, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage”. In such a case the situation becomes clear and the actors of the situation are also evident (Active and Passive Voice 2009).

How to Make a Decision on Which Voice to Use

There is still much debate over the topic of what voice to use and when is still going, and on discussing the situations in which passive voice constructions appear to be more appropriate it is necessary to consider those cases in which active voice becomes a dominant preference. According to the opinion of Stilman (1997), there are certain advantages in the usage of active voice because of the clear statement of actors engaged in the activities:

  • Passive: When the F1 key is pressed, help information is shown.
  • More Direct: When you press the F1 key, help information appears.
  • Even More Direct: Press F1 key to see help information. (p. 286).

However, Stilman (1997) also outlines the main factors that may speak for using passive voice to make the text more coherent and easy to comprehend. First of all, this factor may be the insignificance of the doer (e.g. The cake wasn’t served until two in the morning or The waiters didn’t serve the cake until two in the morning) (p. 288), the attempt to avoid the first-person-singular pronoun (I randomly assigned the subjects to each group or Subjects were randomly assigned to each group) (p. 288), and the attempt to avoid using all-male pronouns (The average driver trades in his car every four years or The average car is traded every four years) (pp. 288-289).

The rule that is applicable to almost all situations pertaining to the choice of passive and active voice constructions is the style of writing chosen. In non-scientific writing it is necessary to mostly use the active voice forms because the narrative will be uninteresting, complicated and unclear. In addition, there is always a chance of misunderstanding that will emerge from elimination of doers that will cause losing the sense of the situation (‘Active and Passive Voice’ 2009). As a result the text appears overloaded and has many excessive words that are unwillingly perceived by the listener or the reader.

However, the situation with the scientific texts is completely different – passive voice constructions are considered to add more possibilities for expression in the scientific style because of many scientific objects and the names of scientists being discussed in the texts, thus creating the mixture of objects. When passive voice is used, it allows the narrator to remain omniscient and to present a piece of information unlimited by personal attitudes, competencies and biases:

“This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents” (Active and Passive Voice 2009).

Conclusion

Hence, to draw a conclusion on the general use of passive voice constructions, it is possible to say that the main field of passive voice application is the scientific literature that tries to use the omniscient narrator, the attempts to reduce excessive words when the doer of the action is not important, or for some other purposes to improve the structure of the text. In general, passive voice is not in favor with grammar and writing teachers as they commonly recognize the set of complications that emerge with understanding the text full of passive voice constructions. But still it is hard to say that passive voice is completely unnecessary. The diverse usage of different grammar structures will always indicate the great command of English the speaker or writer has, but everything should be done with consideration of measures and limits – then passive voice structures will not look awkward and overloading in any text.

References

‘Active and Passive Voice’ 2009, OWL at Purdue, Web.

‘Passive Voice’ 2006, Web.

‘Passive Voice’ 2007, The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Web.

Stilman, A 1997, Grammatically correct: the writer’s essential guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage, and grammar, Writer’s Digest Books.

Yates, J 1996, Master the basics—English, Barron’s Educational Series.

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