Improving Your Writing
Active and Passive Constructions
Some teachers, lecturers and software grammar checkers get very upset by the passive voice. Students often end up thinking that somehow the passive is bad but not understanding how or why. We at the Student Learning Service believe that the passive is neither inherently bad nor good but that writers should understand its advantages and disadvantages, and choose accordingly.
What is a passive construction / the passive voice?
The best way to explain is by showing the difference between an active construction and a passive construction [we find construction a clearer term than voice].
- An active construction makes clear who does what:
- My three-year-old smashed the windscreen.
- In grammatical terms, we have a subject (my three-year-old), a verb
(smashed) and the object of the verb (the windscreen).
- A passive construction may well not make clear whodunit:
- My windscreen is (was / has been) smashed.
- A passive construction is characterised by some form of the verb to be with a past participle (usually ending in -ed for example, smashed, refuted, rejected, etc.).
- In grammatical terms, we have the direct object of the verb (the windscreen) and the verb in passive form. The subject of the verb is missing.
- Sometimes, though, a passive construction will add on a bit starting with by which does make clear who did what:
- My windscreen was smashed by my three-year-old.
- Note that the construction is still passive. This is because grammatically, we have the direct object of the verb (windscreen) and the verb (smashed) in the main clause. The person who did the smashing (my three-year-old) appears in another secondary clause beginning with by and is not, strictly speaking, the subject of the verb.
When is it wrong to use passive constructions?
As we have said, at the Student Learning Service we do not believe that passive constructions are inherently right or wrong. However, it is usually the case that academic writing is stronger and more convincing when it makes clear who did what.