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A Refresher on the Passive Voice
by Tanju Deveci

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For many students, grammar seems to be the most important aspect of language learning, which I have personally observed as well in different teaching contexts I have been involved in. I have noticed that students wishing to improve their language skills turn to grammar invariably. Though certain aspects of English grammar are comparatively easy to grasp, some others are likely to cause learners difficulties, one of which is the Passive Voice (P.V.).

"Why do I need to make my language more complicated while I can say things more quickly?" once said one of my learners. It is not that I disagree with him, but I feel that we language teachers may take our learners' interest in such 'complicated' aspects of grammar for granted and expect them to grasp them with ease. Personally, I have had instances where I could not answer some of my students' questions about P.V. on the spur of the moment. Therefore, I feel it might be useful to have a refresher on it.

Meaning and contexts

Oftentimes, my learners have tended to expect me to give them grammatical formulas, which I avoid since I believe that meaning needs to come before form; therefore I'd like to focus on the meaning and context of P.V. first here. As Thomson and Martinet (2011) state, P.V. may be preferred when:

a) it is not necessary to mention the doer of the action.

b) we do not know (exactly) who did the action.

c) the subject of the active verb would be 'people'.

d) the subject of the active sentence would be the indefinite pronoun one.

e) we are more interested in the action than the person who does it.

f) we avoid an awkward or ungrammatical sentence, which is usually done by avoiding a change of subject as in the example below.
"When she was ill, neighbours looked after the children" would be better expressed:
"When she was ill, the children were looked after by neighbours."

g) a speaker may use it to disclaim responsibility for disagreeable announcements.


Azar (2003) states that in the passive, 'the object' of an active verb becomes 'the subject' of the passive verb as in the following example:

Mary helped the boy. >>>> The boy was helped by Mary.

Eckersley & Eckersley (1985) say P.V. is formed by using the appropriate tense of the verb 'to be' + the past participle of the verb.

The negative form is produced by putting 'not' after the verb 'to be'. Contraction is possible with the negative (e.g. isn't¸ wasn't, etc.). With present passive, 'be' can be contracted with the subject.

In most cases, it is not necessary to mention the agent. However, if needed the expression 'by' precedes the agent: This book was written by Camus.

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