Passive in English: they don’t like it, but they still use it

The passive voice is disliked by native speakers and literally hated by students who teach it as a second. And there is a reason for that.

In the editorial policies of many British and American media, back in the 40s, recommendations appeared not to use it in texts. Even George Orwell condemned him.

And in 1989, the famous linguist Denis Baron wrote an article “Going out of style?”

But the passive voice has not disappeared from English. Moreover, in many situations it simplifies and enriches speech. Today we are going to talk about a liability and how to use it wisely.

Why passive is not liked (spoiler: politicians are to blame)

With the theory of English, everything is not so difficult. The passive is used only in two cases:

  • When we do not know who exactly performed a certain action.

  • When you need to shift the focus to an object or action on an object.

The first case is pretty straightforward. We will not complicate everything with subjects-objects, but we will show at once with an example:

The window was shut. – The window was closed.

We do not know who exactly closed the window, but we need to indicate the very fact that someone closed the window.

In the active form, you can also say – “Someone has shut the window” (Someone closed the window), but the passive here sounds more natural. From a logical point of view, “someone” looks like an overkill – there is no need to focus on the subject if he is unknown. This will only be justified if you want to emphasize that you don’t know who exactly closed the window.

The so-called Impersonal Passive – the design “It is said” can still be distinguished as a special form.

It is said that children are afraid of the dark. – Children are said to be afraid of the dark.

This “it is said” (literally “said”) is very often used in scientific research and formal documents. But in colloquial speech, you should not use it. You can easily replace it with “We know” – the meaning will not change, but the harsh clerical will instantly turn into ordinary speech.

In this article, we will not separately tell you how to correctly create a passive voice grammatically in English. If you want to know about it, watch our video:

Much more interesting is the second case, when you need to shift the emphasis. When it is not the subject that is important to us, but the object.

The students were given the books. – Students were given books.

Here it is absolutely not important who exactly gave the books: Librarian, teacher, methodologist – it is important that the students received them.

It is this liabilities chip that is used by politicians to soften their shoals. This is the first and main reason why native speakers do not like passive – it is associated with political speeches. The most important example of this is the expression “Mistakes were made” – “Mistakes were made.”

The media have a good sense of how the language works and how the audience reacts to it. When the editors saw that passiveness was associated with negativity in the masses, it was quickly removed from newspapers and magazines. This did not affect unless the official documents and scientific literature – the passive is used there even now. That is why English for lawyers is a special language that is very different from the spoken version.

Back in 1946, the famous writer George Orwell, the author of the acclaimed books “1984” and “Animal Farm”, wrote an essay “Politics and the English Language” (“Politics and the English Language”), in which he skated on the passive, urging not to use it.

Operators or verbal false limbs … The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render… In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining)


(lane by V. Golyshev)

Operators or verbal prostheses … The idea here is to exclude simple verbs. Instead of one word: break, stop, interfere, fix, kill – a phrase appears from a noun attached to a master verb: give, serve, provide, achieve… In addition, whenever possible, the active voice is replaced with a passive one, and verbal nouns are used instead of verbs (provide reinforcement instead strengthen).

It is ironic that the writer himself did not stop using passive in his books. Already in the very first chapter of the book “1984” we see:

But it had also been suggested by the book that he had just taken out of the drawer.


(lane by V. Golyshev)

But besides, she came across a marble-bound book.

And no, don’t ask us why the translators interpret the original text so freely. Remember the Boromir smiled meme?

Here it is, if anything (spoiler):

And Boromir, overcoming death, smiled. (per. Muravyov, Kistyakovsky)
The shadow of a smile flickered across Boromir’s pale, bloodless face. (per. Grigorieva, Grushetsky)
A faint smile touched Boromir’s mouth. (per. Kamenkovich, Carrick)
Boromir smiled. – Tolkien’s original.

It’s the same here. We’ve checked three of Orwell’s translations — and all three don’t even hint of a drawer. And where did the “marble binding” come from in the above-mentioned version – and it is completely a mystery.

Orwell was adamant about the liability, but today it can and should be used. Let’s explain at what points.

Where and how to use passive so as not to sound like a hook-maker

The passive is not so terrible as it is painted. And in some cases, it suits colloquial speech much better than an asset. Let’s consider them.

To make the sentence more understandable, without unnecessary meanings

I have my car repaired. – My car was repaired.

If in a conversation the personality of the one who repaired is not important, then you can completely omit it. Because the main fact here is that the car was repaired.

And in written sentences, the passive also helps to improve the meaning and style of what is written.

For example, an asset offer sounds like this:

When Jack came home the detective arrested him. “When Jack got home, the detective arrested him.

Doesn’t sound very good. But the passive here corrects the situation:

When Jack came home he was arrested. “When Jack came home, he was arrested.

There is no abrupt change of subject-object, therefore the sentence is read and perceived much better than its “active” version.

When describing facts, ideas, opinions

George Orwell is known by two of his the most famous books: “1984” and “Animal farm”.

George Orwell is best known for his two most popular books, 1984 and Animal Farm.

It doesn’t really matter who exactly knows Orwell. And Orwell himself does nothing for this, they know him – the action is performed on him, no matter how it sounds.

An interesting particular case is the phrase “I was born” – “I was born.” Or, literally, “I was born.” The passive here emphasizes the fact that the speaker was not born by himself, but was born by his mother. That is, he himself did not put any effort into it.

When to make a phrase as polite as possible

You haven’t paid for electricity for tree months! – You haven’t paid for electricity for three months!

Sounds like a run over, doesn’t it? And the pathological politeness of native English speakers does not allow to immediately present for unpaid bills. What if the person just forgot?

Therefore, for the first time, it is worth saying as follows:

The electricity hasn’t been paid for three months. “They haven’t paid for electricity for three months.

Here a person is still left with the opportunity to justify himself. And if he continues not to pay, then you can apply it with an asset.

Actually, it is this point that politicians use to justify themselves. So there is a fine line – it is applicable to the interlocutor it can be used, but to yourself – it is better not.

In headlines and ads

A passive is a marketer’s best friend. Because passive titles sound great.

Mystery air objects seen in sky over LA – Mystery air objects seen in the sky near L.A.

Interestingly, the grammar rules do not apply a bit in the titles. It is important to reveal the meaning to the maximum in a minimum of words. Here the not-too-important “were” and “the” are already missing. And without the passive, I would have to add “Someone”.

But if this is rolling in the headlines, then do not try to repeat it in speech. This is still considered illiteracy, but in the media this is a forced necessity, because two or three “extra” words will greatly stretch the headline and it will have to be typeset not in two, but in three lines. Readers put up with this – this is already perceived as a peculiar feature of newspapers and magazines, but still do not try to write like this in email or use it in conversation.


Actually, that’s all. The passive is considered the least favorite tool in English grammar, but in some situations it is still indispensable. And if you want to perfectly master the passive voice and pump your entire English, sign up for a free trial lesson with a teacher at EnglishDom right now.

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