How can the passive be used in academic English?
This is the second of four lessons about Passive Constructions. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Review the passive form and remind the reader of Lesson 1
– Introduce six scenarios in which the passive is generally used
– Highlight the four unique passive scenarios in academic English
In Lesson 1 of this four-lesson course about passive constructions, we discussed the thematic relations of agents and patients and highlighted how passive sentences using transitive verbs generally have the opposite thematic structure to active sentences. We learned that in passive constructions, the receiver of the action of the verb (the patient) is usually in the subject position, with the agent (the doer of the action) being placed into an optional prepositional phrase after the verb ‘be’ and the past-participle form of the main verb. One passive example that we used was ’The experiment was conducted by the professor’.
When is the passive generally used?
In this second lesson, it’s important that we next explore precisely when passive constructions should and shouldn’t be used so that non-native learners of English are able to improve their accuracy in this area of syntax and grammar. While passive constructions might be more common in academic English, they’re still commonly used in general English expressions too. With this in mind, we’ve included six scenarios below in which passive constructions are frequently found.
Scenario 1: When the agent is unknown
From time to time, it may be necessary to describe a situation in which very few people know who the doer of the action of the verb actually is, such as after a robbery or attack. In cases such as the example provided below, the speaker has little choice but to use a passive construction to avoid the unknown agent:
“The building was broken into around midnight last night.”
“My purse was stolen from my classroom desk during that robbery.”
“A student was also attacked on her way home around the same time.”
Scenario 2: When the agent is unimportant
Similarly, the doer of the action of the verb, the agent, may be unimportant, and mentioning them would therefore be unnecessary. It could be the team of scientists behind a new vaccine, the police force that made an arrest, or the weather event that caused damage to a town. Three expressions have been provided below to demonstrate how the agents of a clause may be omitted when unimportant:
“A new cure for Malaria has been discovered in the United Kingdom.”
“The thief was arrested at around 5am in his apartment in New York.”
“The town was flooded for the third time in a decade.”
Scenario 3: When the agent noun phrase is too long
Some noun-phrase subjects can be extremely long and can contain multiple embedded clauses. Because it’s generally easier to understand complex phrases if they’re placed at the end of a sentence, passive constructions vmay be used when the speaker or writer wishes to make it easier to understand a sentence that has a lengthy or complex noun phrase as its agent:
“The law was signed by the right honourable Mr Smith of the Official Monster Raving Loony party.”
“Many citizens were ignored by the Organisation for Socioeconomic Stability in Greater London.”
“The police were called by the man who lives next door that hates loud music and who especially hates it when I have a party late into the night.”
Scenario 4: When the agent’s identity should be hidden
Additionally, a writer or speaker may wish to obfuscate the identity of the agent that enacted the action of the verb. As the following examples show, this is usually done to avoid responsibility or blame and to direct anger or frustration away from those agents who created the unfortunate situation:
“The chair was already broken, Mum – it’s no one’s fault.”
“Although mistakes were made, let’s not blame anyone and just move on.”
“I’m sorry to say that the football game is cancelled today.”
Scenario 5: To place emphasis on the patient
Because the patient (the receiver of the action of the verb) is generally moved to the front of passive constructions, such constructions may occasionally be used to emphasise the patient more than the agent. Compare the active and passive constructions below to see this in action:
In the active expression, ‘the law’ appears to be the focus, whereas it is the ‘three signatures’ in the passive expression that are the dominant element – emphasised because the act of passing the law is close to completion.
Scenario 6: To place emphasis on the agent
Conversely, by placing the agent into a prepositional ‘by’ phrase, it’s also possible to add additional emphasis to that agent within a passive construction. Consider the following example in which ‘his own wife’ has been emphasised in the passive structure by placing it at the end of the sentence within a prepositional phrase:
How is the passive used in academic English?
While the passive might be common enough in general English, it’s certainly more common in academic English – with as much as 15 to 20% of all clauses being passive in academic periodicals and publications. Because of this frequency, scenarios seven to ten have been included below to specifically show how the passive is commonly used in academic contexts.
Scenario 7: To include a general truth
While evidence in the form of case studies, statistics and historical events should usually be cited and referenced in academic works, commonly accepted truths may be included in academic research without including any source authors or dates of publication. Such truths, when included, are often introduced in the passive voice:
“The sun is made of hydrogen and helium.”
“It is inevitable that laws will be broken by our citizens.”
“Due to scarcity, every job will be done no matter how unappealing.”
Scenario 8: To introduce evidence, arguments or opinions
Even when evidence has been included in the form of source-based information, a writer may still wish to use the passive to introduce such examples, facts or statistics – such as in the following expressions:
“A distinction can be made when the evidence is studied more closely.”
“It is argued that students are less likely to pass if they avoid their homework.”
“While it has been claimed that air pollution is decreasing, Smith (2010) argues against this.”
Scenario 9: To describe processes and procedures
It’s also common during the written methodology section of a piece of primary research, particularly when describing the procedures of a study or the processes of an experiment, that the passive is also included with some frequency. A number of examples have been provided for your reference below:
“The experiment was conducted at 2am, local time.”
“27 people were interviewed on three separate occasions each.”
“The chemicals are first mixed and are then dried over a period of 24 hours.”
Scenario 10: To avoid personal pronouns
Finally, students are often recommended to avoid using personal pronouns in academic writing to make their writing more scientific, objective and formal. One simple way of doing this, of course, is to use passive constructions instead of active ones, such as are shown in the examples below:
Now that you understand the basic forms of the passive and its ten uses in both general and academic contexts, our next lesson about passive constructions explores the seven types of construction that are available to students. Before moving, however, you may wish to complete the Lesson 2 activities to check your understanding.
Lesson 1 explores the topic: How are active and passive constructions different? Our Lesson 1 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button.
There are currently no PowerPoint activities, additional teacher resources or audio and video recordings created for this topic. Please come back again next semester.
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