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I love writing but grammar is seriously not my cup of tea so please forgive my ignorance.

The case in point is:

Henry’s eyes were gouged out by George.

Is it possible to write this in active voice and still omit the initiator of the action? In other words, given "George gouged out Henry’s eyes", how do I omit George from the sentence?

Do I have to resort to words like someone or somebody? Is there an alternative?

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As an alternative to "Henry's eyes were gouged out", there is "Henry had his eyes gouged out" (though some might see some suggestion that the latter suggests a degree of wilfulness). Note that I personally find the example extremely distasteful. –  Henry May 6 '12 at 21:45
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Use the passive voice here. The passive voice was designed for this kind of situation; it's all the people who overuse it in other situations who give it a bad name. –  Peter Shor May 7 '12 at 1:03
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When the OP's question relates to active voice, what's the point in advocating passive voice and its merits? –  Kris May 16 '12 at 12:25
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3 Answers

To omit George and not use someone or somebody, I think you would probably need to use the passive voice: Henry's eyes were carved out.

To omit George and use an active voice, you could try changing the verb. I'm not entirely sure of the context, but you could say something like: Henry suffered great violence to his eyes, wounds inflicted by a carving knife. Or if it is the case that you're talking about a sculpture, you could say: Henry's eyes came to life, as the carver continued working.


Edit, based on your revised question: To omit George and not use someone or somebody, I think you would probably need to use the passive voice: Henry's eyes were gouged out.

To omit George and use an active voice, you could try changing the verb. You could say something like: Henry suffered great violence to his eyes, wounds inflicted by a carving knife. Or Henry's eyes suffered horrific wounds inflicted by a knife.

Note that one of the reasons for using the passive voice is "to hide the identity of the agent (doer). The speaker/writer wants to be tactful or evasive." I think yours is an instance of this, so the passive "Henry's eyes were gouged out." may be your better option.

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Agreed - you can bastardise your sentence if you really want to, but one wonders why the need to... –  Neil Coffey May 13 '12 at 18:31
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You can omit the agent if you use the passive (Henry's eyes were carved out), but not in the active unless you use a dummy subject. But then you would end up with something weird like: There was a carving out of Henry's eyes.

Actually, the example itself is weird. Are we talking about a sculpture here?

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Perhaps the OP means 'gouged'. –  Barrie England May 6 '12 at 18:44
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In situations such as this, we find writers resort to what may be roughly called the existential they.

"They gouged out Henry's eyes."
That leaves out who did it. Here, they does not refer backwards to some persons mentioned earlier. It is a dummy. They in "What they don't teach you at biz school," does not mean the biz school or its faculty -- it's a dummy.

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