Passive Construction in English
Radford, Andrew (2004). English Syntax, An
introduction. Cambridge University Press
Swan, Michael (2005). Practical English Usage,
Third Edition. Oxford University Press
Why use passive voice in normal
To emphasize another part of the sentence
besides the subject of the active verb.
Billions of people watched the Beijing Olympics on
The Beijing Olympics were watched by billions of
people on TV.
Gives a sense of anonymity (see next)
Why is it recommended for use in
scientific and medical fields, legal
documents and other academic
Lets the facts stand on their own
Enhances objectivity by taking the researcher
out of the action
Presents an “air” or feeling of logic
Effect on your own academic writing
People reading your thesis or paper are going
to be far less interested in you than in your
work, so the emphasis should be on what you
did and not on you. Also, by not saying "I
weighed the sample" but "The sample was
weighed," you make your writing sound more
Note: But be careful not to go overboard in your
writing. If you do, it might sound awkward and
Four main properties which differentiate
passive sentences from active
**Passive (though not active) sentences generally
require the auxiliary “Be”.
The main verb is in the past participle form
Passive sentence may (though need not) contain a byphrase in which the compliment of by plays the same
thematic role as the subject in the corresponding
active sentence.
The expression which serves as the complement of an
active verb surfaces as the subject in the
corresponding passive construction.
They will watch the event.
The event will be watched.
They took everything.
Everything was taken.
Many warriors repelled the attack.
The attack was repelled by many warriors.
Wally stole the money.
The money was stolen by Wally.
No evidence of any corruption was found.
There was found no evidence of any corruption.
Several cases of bird flu have been reported.
There have been reported several cases of bird
A significant change of policy has been
There has been announced a significant
change of policy.
Verbs with two objects
• Many verbs, such as give, send show, lend, pay,
promise, refuse, tell and offer, can be followed
by two objects, an IO and a DO. Two structures
are possible:
– She gave her sister the car.
– Her sister was given the car.
– The car was given to her sister.
• The choice may depend on what has been said
before (i.e. the context).
Passive verbs with prepositions
• The objects of prepositional verbs can become
subjects in passive structures.
– Nobody listens to her.
– She is never listened to.
• Note the word order. The final preposition can never be
• If there is already a direct object, the second object
(after the preposition) cannot become a passive
– They threw stones at him.
– Stones were thrown at him
– *He was thrown stones at.
Sentences with a relative clause as
the object
• Some sentence have clauses as their object. These
cannot normally become the subject of passive
sentences unless a preparatory it is added.
– Nobody thought that she was a spy.
– *That she was a spy was thought by nobody.
– It was thought that she was a spy.
• A few verbs that are followed by infinitives (ex. decide,
agree) can also be used in passive structures
beginning with it.
– They decided to meet at 12:00
– It was decided to meet at 12:00
He is believed to be…
• Many verbs can be followed by object +
infinitive. Most of these can be made passive
– We chose Felicity to be the Carnival Queen
– Felicity was chosen to be the Carnival Queen.
• With verbs like think, feel and believe, the object
+ infinitive is rather formal and often unusual.
– They believe him to be dangerous.
– He is believed (considered) to be dangerous
(common in news reports)