Intentionally Passive

“Don’t use the passive voice!”

We are often told not to use the passive voice because it can sound too vague and awkward.  But, the passive voice is very useful because we don’t need to mention who did the action.  “All holidays are cancelled!” – whoever made that decision may not want anyone to know he was the one.

Politicians frequently use the passive voice to obscure who is taking the action. Not wanting to take the blame for an error, they may say, “Mistakes were made”.  Companies also use it when they wish to upbraid their clients.  They could say, “We will shut off your gas if we do not receive payment by the end of the month.”  However, it is less offensive to say “Your gas will be shut off if we do not receive payment by the end of the month.”  The meaning is, of course, the same!

Usually, we have a specific reason for using the passive voice.  We use it when we don’t know who did the action as in “Mercedes Benz cars are manufactured in China.”  We don’t know the name of any of the workers who create the vehicles.

Sometimes, we know who did the action, but in the context of the sentence that person is not important.  “Malala was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.”  Whoever handed her the award is not at all important in this context.

News media often use the passive to change the emphasis of a story.  If they want to highlight a shooting, rather than who did the shooting, they write, “Shots were fired”.  In the recent Hong Kong protests, we frequently read that, “Roads have been blocked off”.

When writing about science, too, we tend to use the passive voice to make the article more objective and to “take ourselves out” of the experimental results.  A simple example would be, “If oil is added to fire, the flames becomes fiercer.”  This is also the case in medicine, “An extraordinary face transplant was successfully conducted in France.”

A good exercise for language learners is to go through English language newspaper headlines and note the use of the passive voice and then to rewrite these headlines using the active voice.  It’s interesting to discuss with others how the meaning changes.

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