Why use passives?

16th January 2004 at 00:00
What do passive verbs have to do with being passive? To judge by the label, you'd think there would be a close connection; but don't be misled.

There's actually no connection at all. If you write, "Beckham is admired by millions," Beckham is no more nor less "passive" than in the active, "Millions admire Beckham".

Why, then, do we bother to use the so-called "passive voice"? Remember, a passive verb is basically just a participle (eg "admired", "seen", "eaten", "defined"), so it can't stand on its own - it has to be supported by another verb (eg "is", "gets"), or even a noun: "Our rubbish gets collected on Tuesdays", or "The people left outside the stadium started to fight."

A passive verb is a pretty limited creature compared with its active cousins, so there must be some clear compensations for this loss of flexibility.

As we said in an earlier column (June 28, 2002, p30), the passive voice gives enormous flexibility because almost any verb which takes a subject and an object in the active has a passive which reverses these elements, like this: "Millions admire Beckham" (active); "Beckham is admired by millions" (passive) In spite of its grammatical dependence, there are three reasons for preferring the passive over the much more independent active; and none of them has anything whatever to do with how "passive" or "active" the active object is.

Here are three situations where the passive "is admired" might be better than the active "admire":

* To reduce focus on "by millions", by missing it out altogether so as to avoid saying who the admirers are; this is often the appropriate style in science reports: "The Bunsen burner was lit and adjusted" (no need here to know by whom).

* To achieve exactly the opposite effect: increasing focus on "by millions" by putting it in the prime focus position at the end of the sentence. So in answer to the question, "Who ordered this pizza?", it would be natural to say, "It was ordered by Henry." This gives Henry much greater prominence than the active "Henry ordered it."

* To give the active object the benefits of the subject position. One advantage of this position is that it's next to the previous sentence.

Suppose the previous sentence had been, "The most important person in this country is David Beckham." The passive "He is admired by millions" starts with "he", which links straight back to the end of the sentence before.

That's good writing.

This area of grammar is sometimes assumed to be arcane and irrelevant at KS3. In fact, like so many key grammar concepts, it should be controlled, understood, appreciated and used (when needed) by every KS3 writer.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London

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