#240: How & Why to Use the Passive Voice | English Grammar Practice

by | May 18, 2022 | 7 comments

How, when, and why should you use the passive voice in English?

You may recall studying the passive voice in English grammar lessons but still feel unsure about how to use it. 

Today we’re going to solve that frustration.

In this Confident English lesson today, you’re going to learn 6 specific uses of the passive voice in English.

Along the way, you’ll get English grammar practice with the examples I share and the practice questions I have for you. 

To get ready, I recommend grabbing a pen and paper so you’re ready to practice with me.

6 Uses of the Passive Voice in English

Use #1: When the Actor Is Unknown or Insignificant

English speakers use the passive voice when the actor (person/thing performing the action) is unknown or insignificant. 

This is especially true when reporting crimes or incidents when the perpetrator is unknown.

  • The store was robbed in broad daylight.
  • My wallet was stolen last year.

Practice: Think for a moment about your experiences. Have you ever had something stolen? Or maybe a car window was broken? 

But you don’t know who did it?

Using the passive voice, write down a sentence you might use if you were reporting the crime or telling a friend about it. You can follow my examples.

 

Before we move on, a second way to think about an unknown actor — or when the person who completed the action is unimportant — is when talking about architecture. Such as design, construction, or renovation. 

Recently members of my Confident Women Community practiced using the passive voice to describe specific places or buildings in their city. I’d love to challenge you in the same way.

For example:

  • Our home was renovated in 2019. → We do not know or don’t care who did it.
  • This building was completed in 1813 and was designed in the Federal style.

Practice: What about where you live? Is there a famous building you could describe without stating who did it?

Use #2: The Actor Is Obvious

We use the passive voice when there’s an obvious and common understanding of who or what performed an action. So we don’t need to waste time stating the obvious

For instance, it’s common knowledge that your salary is paid by your employer. 

When describing your payment cycle, you could simply say, “I’m paid biweekly.”

Pop Quiz: How would you rephrase this sentence to use the passive voice?

The police arrested the robber last night.

Answer: The robber was arrested last night.

Since it’s obvious that the police are making the arrest, we can easily use the passive voice. 

*Tip: When you use the passive voice and want to specify who did the action, end the sentence with by and the actor. 

I’m paid biweekly by my employer.

Use #3: To Emphasize the Recipient

Remember that the object receives the action, in the passive voice. For this reason, English speakers use the passive voice to draw attention to the recipient.

For instance, rather than say:

“The local government spent millions of dollars to restore the building.”

The passive voice could be used to say:

“Millions of dollars were spent to restore the building.”

Moving the recipient to the front of the sentence and eliminating the actor, puts emphasis on the large sum of money that was spent instead of who spent the money. 

Practice: Can you think of a time when too much money was spent on something? An item? A project budget?

Rather than focus on WHO spent the money, think about how to focus on what was spent. 

Here’s a recommended way to start, “Too much money was spent on ______.”

Use #4: To Emphasize A Result

While the passive voice allows us to highlight that something or someone receives an action, it can also be used to shift the focus on the result of an action. 

English speakers achieve this by using the passive voice in addition to the stress on the verb.

  • For example, to place emphasis on the result of a budget cut, I could say, “Students were demotivated when they heard there would be no art program next year.”  

Now, you might be wondering: couldn’t use the active voice and say “The news of no art program demotivated the students” — still emphasizing the verb demotivated?

And the answer is yes, we certainly could. But doing so shifts the focus in the sentence. Now it’s the news of no art program that we pay attention to most.

Using the passive voice allows the speaker or writer to decide what is most important in the sentence — the fact that there is no art program? Or the fact that students were demotivated.

Use #5: To Protect and Avoid Blame

The passive voice is useful when the actor needs or wants to be protected. 

Imagine you’re the host of a party and someone accidentally broke a valuable object.

To shield the person from further embarrassment, you might say “It was accidentally knocked off the table.”

In this case, the passive voice enables you to avoid naming the person.

 

In contrast, the actor can protect themself by using the passive voice to avoid responsibility.

We often hear this in statements made by people of power.

For example, if a politician is making a speech to acknowledge a mistake and soften their role in the mistake, they might say “Mistakes were made and we’re working towards a solution.”

Practice: Can you remember a situation when someone you care about at work accidentally broke something? Or missed an important deadline? Or forgot to complete an important task? 

In talking about it, you want to protect the person who did it. How would you describe what happened?

Use #6: To Describe Actions in Scientific and Academic Contexts

The passive voice is traditionally used in scientific literature or contexts. This is especially true in lab reports and research papers. 

  • The subject’s cognitive state was assessed at the end of each trial.”
  • Over 100 responses were collected in the survey.

Now you have 6 clear uses for the passive voice and your own examples to help you determine how you might use the passive voice in your own Egnlish communication. 

Feel free to share your examples with me below.

Or tell me how today’s lesson helped you. Share a quick comment in the comment section below to let me know.

~ Annemarie

 

P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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