We use the passive voice when the subject in the sentence receives the action, as opposed to the active voice, when the subject does the action. It is called the ‘passive voice’ because the subject is not active, therefore it is not doing the action.

We form the passive voice by using the verb ‘to be’followed by the past participle and we usually follow it with the word ‘by’. For example, «the pasta was eaten by Tom», or «the window was opened by Mary». In both these sentences the subjects receive the action. In the first sentence the pasta is the subject and in the second sentence the window is the subject. Neither of them are active and they don’t do the action, therefore they are passive.

The active voice is used when the subject in the sentence does the action. For example, «John is reading the book». In this case John is the subject and he is reading the book, therefore the subject is active.

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The active voice is more common in speaking than the passive voice. However, it is common to see the passive voice being used in newspaper articles or news reports. For example, «the bank was bailed out by the government». In this case we are reporting who bailed out the bank.

There are four common uses of the passive voice. They are as follows:

1. When we don’t know who does the action in a sentence.

2.When we don’t want to say who does the action in a sentence.

3. When it is not important who does the action in a sentence.

4. When it is obvious who does the action in a sentence.

When we don’t know who has done something, we often use the passive voice. For example, «the window has been broken». In this case we have noticed that the window has been broken but we didn’t see who did it, so we say «the window has been broken». We know someone did it but we don’t know who.

When we don’t want to say who does the action it is common to use the passive voice. Imagine a situation in work where a boss calls an employee into his office to tell him that one of the employee’s colleagues has made a complaint against him. This could be an awkward situation and could cause trouble between the employee and the person who has made the complaint. So, instead of telling him who made the complaint, the boss says «a complaint has been made against you». He doesn’t give the name of the person who made the complaint, because that is not the important issue. The important issue is that the boss notifies the employee in order to solve the problem. In this case he uses the passive voice because he doesn’t want to say who did the action.

When it is not important who does the action we also use the passive voice. For example, if you are talking about the mobile phone and its history you could say that «the mobile phone was invented in 1973». In this case it is not important who invented it. The important information is when it was invented. Or another example of this is «a cure for the disease has been found». Again it is not important who found the cure but that the cure was found.

The final use of the passive voice is when it is obvious who does the action in a sentence. For example, «I was given a prescription for medicine for my sore throat». In this situation we don’t need to say that we were given the prescription by a doctor because it is obvious because a doctor is the only person who can give you a prescription for medicine. If we say «the thief was arrested», we don’t have to say «by the police» because it is obvious he was arrested by the police; the police are the only people who can arrest someone.

Notice that with these four uses of the passive voice we do not say «by someone/him/her etc… because we are not stating who does the action, for one reason or another. When you want to say who does the action you use the word ‘by’.

G. Harman

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