Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Active and passive sentences

with 25 comments

Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...

George Orwell, who was passionate about writing in plain language, wrote in his essay Politics and the English Language (1950):

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

How to recognise a passive sentence

Very often, you can recognise a passive sentence because you can’t tell who is responsible for doing something.

Here is a passive sentence:

You will be sent a letter within six weeks.

You know it’s passive because you don’t know who will be sending the letter.

Here are a few more passive sentences:

Payments will be taken from your account every month. (You don’t know who will take the payments.)

Residents are visited if they have any complaints. (You don’t know who will visit the residents.)

You will be telephoned when the outcome is known. (You don’t know who will telephone.)

You can see that these sentences are a little long-winded, impersonal and slightly pompous. Officials love the passive because it puts a distance between themselves and their readers. And even better, readers often have no way of knowing who will carry out the promised action and so no one can be easily called to account.

Active sentences

By making these sentences ‘active’ they are transformed:

I will send you a letter within six weeks.

We will take payments from your account every month.

We visit residents if they have any complaints.

I will telephone you when I know the outcome.

If you want your writing to be clear and direct, the active will usually be a much better choice than the passive.

When the passive is friendlier

The passive can be a good choice if you don’t want to sound aggressive. For example, look at these active sentences:

You have ignored my letters.

You did not settle your account.

You have made an error of judgement.

The passive will help you sound friendlier:

My letters have been ignored.

Your account has not been settled.

An error of judgement was made.

When you have to use the passive

In some cases, you will have to use the passive. For example, look at the following active sentence:

Mr Green marked my exam paper on Saturday.

But what if you don’t know who marked the exam paper? In this case you would have to write the following passive sentence:

My exam paper was marked on Saturday.

Indignance, the passive and euphemism

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25 Responses

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  1. Your writing will improve markedly if you try to start most sentences with the subject. If you find a sentence that’s unclear or weak, it’s often because it’s in passive voice. Try specifying the subject and putting it first to improve the sentence.

    Putting the subject first also forces you to dig out the active verb that’s often buried in some Latinate noun construction. So instead of “Information was provided us by the school regarding the tests,” write: “The teacher informed us about the tests.” It’s shorter, clearer, plainer, and more honest, since it says who did what.

    Michael Farrell

    02/04/2010 at 2:08 pm

    • Hear, hear.

      …or, even better: The teacher told us about the tests.

      Deborah

      02/04/2010 at 4:14 pm

      • Note ref to “buried verb.”

        Michael Farrell

        02/04/2010 at 4:36 pm

  2. Here’s an example of pointless passive voice: “There has been an arrest in the attempted assault of a Malibu jogger who escaped by jumping off a cliff and sliding about 100 feet down a steep hillside.”

    No reason AP could not have said, “Police arrested a suspect in the attempted….”

    Michael Farrell

    03/04/2010 at 2:48 pm

    • Exactly so. Thanks for that excellent example, Michael.

      Deborah

      03/04/2010 at 2:49 pm

      • That example is the lead sentence. I swear that news journalists are over-fond of the passive voice because somewhere in journalism school someone taught them that you focus on the key event — in this case, the arrest — not the actor. They’re also worried about libel and unverified facts — what if the highway patrol or sheriff actually made the arrest? — so they timidly shuffle the actor off into the ether.

        I know that it’s good to get the facts right the first time. But news sources have this great, rather rare vehicle for correcting or retracting a mistake in the very next issue or updated post.

        Michael Farrell

        03/04/2010 at 3:12 pm

        • The lead sentence? That’s just terrible. It would be bad enough in the middle of copy. Even the passive ‘An arrest has been made…’ would sound better.

          Deborah

          03/04/2010 at 3:17 pm

  3. Most of the time, you can recognize the passive voice because it includes a form of the verb “be” + a past participle (usu. a verb ending in “-ed”). See the examples above: “Residents are visited” and “You will be telephoned.” (In the other examples above, “sent” and “taken” are also past participles, but less common forms. Rarely, a “get” verb will appear in the passive voice instead of a “be” verb, e.g., “The boy got punched.”)

    Unfortunately, as a result, some petty tyrants (read, ill-informed teachers, editors, and bosses) will accuse you of having used the passive voice just because your sentence contains a “be” verb.

    Push the tyrant back if your sentence does not contain a past participle after the “be” verb. For example: “The quotation is applicable to the point.” That ugly sentence contains a “be” verb but is in the active voice. (You could quickly improve it — still in the active voice — by writing, “The quotation applies….”)

    Michael Farrell

    04/04/2010 at 2:31 am

    • Thanks very much for this, Michael. I’m glad you explained that stuff about passive sentences including a form of the verb ‘to be’. I was thinking of doing a ‘part 2’ to explain all the gory details, but now I don’t need to. In case anyone is interested in reading more, the following is an extract from something I wrote a while back in relation to how the passive is formed. The two sentences being discussed are:

      I eat fish. (Active)
      Fish are eaten by me. (Passive)

      To ensure they make sense, passive sentences usually have to include some form of the verb ‘to be’ (for example, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘being’, ‘am’, ‘will be’) as well as the main verb (in this case ‘eat’).

      Note that the main verb in a passive sentence has to change from the present tense to a past tense. (In this case from ‘eat’ to ‘eaten’).

      You’ll also note the necessary addition of the word ‘by’ in the sentence ‘Fish are eaten by me’. In many cases that little word ‘by’ can be another good warning that you have written a passive sentence.

      Deborah

      04/04/2010 at 6:34 am

      • Noice! I spent far too much time last evening trying to prove that “There has been an arrest” is in fact in the passive voice. I know it is, because there’s no actor; but it doesn’t follow the normal rules for identifying a passive. Constructions beginning “there is/are” often are weak and flabby and often come joined with the passive.

        I guess I can say this: passive voice can be found in various forms.* But most often marked by “be” + past part. or the prep. “by,” as you pointed out.

        *Intentionally passive.

        Michael Farrell

        04/04/2010 at 3:32 pm

        • Your comments have been read with great interest. By an unnamed person. Because a passive sentence was written. By an unnamed person.

          Deborah

          04/04/2010 at 3:51 pm

  4. A classic headline today: “Great Barrier Reef rammed by Chinese coal ship.” I know the idea is to put the real subject of interest — the reef — first. But doesn’t that presume that, if it were “Chinese coal ship rams GBR,” readers are so flighty that they won’t bother to read through the first four words in the headline? How many milliseconds does that take?

    Michael Farrell

    04/04/2010 at 8:48 pm

    • P.S. That headline contains all of the above markers of the passive voice: a “be” verb (the missing “was” or “is” is understood and left out of the headline to save space); a past participle (“rammed”); and a “by.”

      Michael Farrell

      05/04/2010 at 12:10 am

      • Hmm, that’s a trickier one. I tend to agree with the headline writer’s choice of the passive there. As you point out, the Great Barrier Reef is the main subject of interest. It’s not often that the passive is preferable but, for example, if a dog bit the queen, I would expect the headline to read:

        Queen bitten by dog (passive)

        Not:

        Dog bites queen (active)

        Deborah

        05/04/2010 at 6:49 am

  5. Yes, but what if the Queen’s private motor yacht struck, say, France? “France Rammed by Queen”? I don’t think so. (Daily Mail: “Ooh La La: Royal Boating Escapade Hits the Rocks.”)

    Michael Farrell

    05/04/2010 at 2:18 pm

    • France more important than the queen? I don’t think so. Not if you’re the Daily Mail editor, anyway. So that would definitely be: ‘Queen rams France’.

      Deborah

      05/04/2010 at 3:39 pm

      • Here’s a brilliant example of the passive voice used by Robert Gibbs to verbally evade responsibility (quoted in the Guardian):

        The White House has been forced to make an embarrassing U-turn after it appeared to have acted rashly in approving the sacking of a senior black official who was being targeted by a controversial rightwing blogger.

        Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs also grovelled last night, saying: “A disservice was done. An apology was owed…)

        Deborah

        24/07/2010 at 6:40 am

      • “France obstructs queen’s progress,” is probably more likely in the Mail.

        Ron

        24/07/2010 at 2:14 pm

        • True, Ron. I think I was more in currant bun mode there.

          Deborah

          24/07/2010 at 2:35 pm

  6. Hi Deborah: I had an interesting real-life experience with the slipperiness of the passive voice, this past week. I settled a defamation case and one of the terms of our settlement offer (the most important one to my client) was that the offending party make a sincere, unreserved apology which would be posted on the internet forum where the defamatory comments were first made. The other lawyer sent the draft apology to us to for approval, as per the terms of our settlement. It contained much flowery double-speak and then this line: “A serious error was made which Mr ___ sincerely regrets”. My client is a simple man and not a grammar aficionado but he recognizes weaselly evasiveness when he sees it. I was instructed to return the apology with this pithy response: Tell him to say that he did it, he was dead wrong. And he’s sorry. Or the deal’s off.

    Jo-Anne

    24/07/2010 at 2:40 pm

    • I love that story, Jo-Anne. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Your client’s response was brilliant. Bet that put the cat among the passive proverbial pigeons.

      Deborah

      24/07/2010 at 2:49 pm

  7. Haha! Yes, it was like sticking a pin in a hot-air balloon. I might also add that this client is quite a character and provides me with hours of delight, as I relive and chuckle over his malapropisms and misquotes (wrong thread, I know, but bear with me). He wanted the opposing party held responsible for “costs that he was forced to concur”; He demanded to know what kind of “song and stance” this other fella was up to, with his weak-kneed apology; (I’ve cleaned up the language). He declared at one point that “this is putting light on the shedding”..to which I sagely nodded, of course. 🙂

    Jo-Anne

    24/07/2010 at 3:04 pm

    • Thanks, Jo-Anne — I like ‘song and stance’, which is somehow strangely appropriate in the circumstances. He sounds wonderful. (Nodding sagely with you.)

      Deborah

      24/07/2010 at 3:13 pm

  8. hi deborah i have a question : are passive sentences formed out of active ones ot the other way around?

    saman

    29/10/2010 at 7:15 pm

    • Hello, there! Thanks for your interesting question — not one that I’ve been asked before! The answer is neither; one is not formed from the other as such. The active is one way of writing a sentence and the passive is another. For example:

      This is an active sentence:

      John made a mistake at the factory.

      This is a passive sentence:

      A mistake was made at the factory.

      The clue that the first sentence is ‘active’ is the fact that we know who made the mistake: it was John.

      The clue that the second sentence is ‘passive’ is the fact that we cannot tell who made the mistake. That’s why passive sentences are so often used when the writer wishes to evade responsibility for something. Passive sentences have their place, as described in this post, but active sentences are usually preferable.

      Deborah

      29/10/2010 at 8:25 pm


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