Frequently Asked Question on Passive Voice — Part 1

We have seen through the usage of active and pas­sive voice in pre­vi­ous posts of this blog. In this arti­cle we would address some of the fre­quently asked ques­tions on pas­sive voice.
Let us start by reca­pit­u­lat­ing the bare essentials.

Pas­sive voice is used to hide the essen­tial infor­ma­tion. Let us see the play of pas­sive voice through var­i­ous examples.

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day. (But I have no idea who wrote it.)

The mes­sage can be even more abbre­vi­ated and obtuse:

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten. (But by whom, when, and .…?)

Even if we include the miss­ing infor­ma­tion, the empha­sis is deflected from the issue of who wrote the sen­tence because the sub­ject of the sen­tence (the focus of atten­tion) is not “who the author is”. The author (the doer) is almost par­en­thet­i­cal information.

  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day by one of my tech­ni­cal people.
  • This sen­tence was writ­ten yes­ter­day (by one of my tech­ni­cal people).


Using pas­sive voice is gram­mat­i­cally incorrect:

To answer this ques­tion we would start with the def­i­n­i­tion of pas­sive voice in a dif­fer­ent light. A pas­sive voice occurs when the object is super­im­posed on the sub­ject of the sen­tence. In other words, who­ever or what­ever is per­form­ing the action is not the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject of the sen­tence i.e. men­tioned or inferred in the sen­tence. With this def­i­n­i­tion you would have real­ized, how often we face the need of pas­sive voice. Most of the times the sub­ject is inferred but as always a deduced sub­ject will be prone to con­fu­sion. Let’s see another example.

  • Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

In the above exam­ple if you observe care­fully, you can see the road is the gram­mat­i­cal sub­ject. Due to this struc­tur­ing the chicken here becomes the gram­mat­i­cal object. The more famil­iar way of putting this sen­tence why did the chicken cross the road? puts the object and the sub­ject at their respec­tive places. We use active verbs to rep­re­sent that “doing,” whether it is cross­ing roads, propos­ing ideas, mak­ing argu­ments, or invad­ing houses. You would have seen by now, how usage of pas­sive voice is just a mere exten­sion of say­ing things indi­rectly. It is just a styl­is­tic issue which per­tains to clarity.

Usage of “to be” makes the sen­tence passive:

There is a golden rule to iden­tify pas­sive voice.

form of “to be” + past par­tici­ple = pas­sive voice

The pas­sive voice is much more than using a verb. It’s about rep­re­sen­ta­tion of thoughts from clar­ity per­spec­tive. If you notice care­fully the above for­mula, you would notice that iden­ti­fy­ing “to be” and a past par­tici­ple would def­i­nitely make the sen­tence pas­sive. But using “to be” can cur­tail the flow of writ­ing and cer­tainly make the write a lot less impact­ful. But you should remem­ber “to be” does not by itself con­sti­tute the pas­sive voice, it is occa­sion­ally nec­es­sary. Not every sen­tence that con­tains a form of “have” or “be” is passive!

We have by now looked into few of the mis­con­cep­tions related to pas­sive voice. In the next arti­cle we would look into few other FAQs.

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