I would like to know the why and when the 'passive voice' is used instead of the 'active voice' in English. The following definition did not help me very much.

passive voice

the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is the recipient (not the source) of the action denoted by the verb; "The ball was thrown by the boy" uses the passive voice; "The ball was thrown" is an abbreviated passive.

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    Because the action is important, and not who does it. – Matsmath May 26 '16 at 9:26
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    Because that's how you can be passive-aggressive. – Hot Licks May 26 '16 at 11:23
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    @Matsmath Au contraire we very often use the passive so that we can shunt the people what done it to the end of the sentence, where they are more prominent and receive more focus. See my answer for a better explanation :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 12:54

There are two styles of passive. We can have long passives which mention the agent:

  • I was robbed by a clown.

Or we can have short passives that don't tell us who the agent is at all:

  • I was robbed.

Whether you use an active or passive sentence will depend primarily on two factors. The first is which entities in your sentence have already been mentioned and which haven't. As a rule of thumb the best place for new information is at the end of the sentence. It is the end of sentence which carries most focus. Putting new information at the beginning of a sentence puts undue stress on your reader and makes sentences difficult to cognitively process. This is exacerbated when the first phrase is an indefinite noun phrase. Consider the following example:

  1. a. I've been studying the Mona Lisa. Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

This pair of sentences is awkward to say the least. It is certainly an example of poor style. What is the problem? Well, the major problem is that it uses the an active clause. The writer has ill-advisedly gone out of their way to avoid a passive. The result is that the discourse-old Mona Lisa is occurring at the end of the second sentence with all the grace of a limping warthog, whilst the revelatory information, the star attraction in the sentence, Leonardo Da Vinci appears at the beginning. Because Da Vinci occurs at the beginning it gives the reader the impression that something more informative, more exciting and more revelatory is going to occur further on in the utterance. Hearts arrested, breath abated we wait in anticipation ... to find the boring old bloody Mona Lisa sitting at the end there. Now that's just rude. The writer had no reason to do that to us and then let us down so badly. This pair of sentences break some basic conventions of how speakers (and writers) package information. Here's what the writer should have done:

  1. b. I've been studying the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci.

The reason the passive sentence works well is that the Mona Lisa links back to the first sentence, whilst Da Vinci, which is new to the discourse, takes the prominent position at the end.

The second factor which will affect whether you want to use an active or passive construction is which entities in your sentence you wish to specify and which you don't. There are two types of passive sentence, long passives and short passives. Long passives are usually used for the purposes given above. Short passives are often used when:

  • we don't want to mention the agent for political or social reasons
  • we don't know who the agent is
  • the agent is obvious and therefore redundant
  • the agent is irrelevant to our conversation
  • our knowledge of the agent is so vague that mentioning them is redundant

For any of the reasons above the fist sentence here is probably more effective than the second:

  • I've been shot!
  • Somebody's shot me!

If, however, the agent is someone important or interesting in the context of your text, then you will prefer an active clause over a short passive:

  • The world cup has been won!
  • Cameroon have won the world cup!

So, the upshot of all of this is you should just choose the active or passive according to your needs. If there is one rule of thumb to stick to, it is to put new information at the end of your sentence and old information at the beginning.

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  • This is certainly a very interesting, more in-depth perspective. – Matsmath May 26 '16 at 13:30
  • Just to be clear, do you class a long passive as leading up to an agent, rather than strictly by length? For example "I was robbed in a fancy restaurant" is longer than "I was robbed by a clown". Or would my example count as long because of the extra information even though that's location rather than agent? – Chris H May 26 '16 at 15:46
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    @Chris Your restaurant example would be a short passive, as you might guess. The "long passive" is defined by The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language as one which includes the agent in a by preposition phrase. So it is spefically the phrase by a clown that makes the example in the post a long passive. You could very easily have a sentence which involves a short passive construction but is actually very, very long! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 16:29
  • Thanks. I assumed that the agent rather than generic information was the condition. But the terms leave a little to be desired when it comes to clarity (I can say that now I know they're not your own). – Chris H May 26 '16 at 16:49
  • Someone has voted to delete the question, which I think is a terrible misjudgement, other users who see only the question and not the answers in the delete queue might also vote to delete the post. That's why I added the "research" and upvoted the question. I think your answer is canonical-like, it should help future visitors. – Mari-Lou A Jun 1 '16 at 5:31

This is quite a broad question, but this depends on who you want to put the emphasis on, who is the subject of the sentence.

Brian was defeated by John yesterday.

The first noun you encounter, Brian, is the subject and the one you want to put the emphasis on.

John defeated Brian yesterday.

You can clearly see that the center of the attention has shifted from Brian to John by going from the passive to the active voice.

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  • Hmm. It's usually the end of the sentence that carries the focus of the sentence in English, not the beginning. (see my answer for why) – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 13:13
  • @Araucaria Focus is distinct from emphasis however. If one constituent is new then usually it will be both focused and emphasised (and positioned at the end). If both constituents are given then there is a choice about which one to emphasise, and I think in many cases the topic would be the one to carry that emphasis. – curiousdannii May 26 '16 at 13:51
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    This is actually not trivial at all and is the result of how our mind perceives the sequence of words in a particular language. When I read my second sentence, John defeated Brian yesterday, I definitely think we put the emphasis on John rather than on Brian. Then again, it could change from one mind to another so ... – MadWard May 26 '16 at 14:01
  • @curiousdannii Yes, but it we'd be pretty unlikely, I think, to passivise in order to take something given from the end to put it at the beginning in order to emphasise it--given that if we still want to emphasise it even though it's given, it will catch the tonic syllable if it's at the end. – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 15:26

And in traditional scientific writing, it’s used out of a kind of (false?) modesty — a wish to avoid repeating the word ‘I’.


Eye of newt and toe of frog were then added. This was followed by wool of bat and tongue of dog...

rather than:

I then added eye of newt and toe of frog. Next I added wool of bat and tongue of dog...

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MadWard is right. Also, passive voice is useful in situations where it is not known who performed the action ("a man was murdered and police are looking for clues"); where we can't say - or don't want to say - who performed the action ("the proper workflow process is not being followed"); or where it's irrelevant who performed the action ("when errors are reported, they are logged in a secure file location").

In general, passive voice is clumiser to read than active voice, but sometimes it's the only right way of saying what we want to say.

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  • I'm afraid Madward isn't right in the end. It's the end of a sentence that carries the focus, not the beginning! – Araucaria - Not here any more. May 26 '16 at 13:24

There are several reasons why we resort to the passive voice in English writing, to wit:

When we do not know the doer of the action--

Example: John was hit by a car last night.

When the doer (even if known) is not important or is irrelevant; or if the object acted on is more important--

Example: My bag was brought to my car. A memorandum was placed on my table.

When we want to place importance on the person or object on whom an action was done--

Example: Helen was elected President by his classmates. [Here the doer (classmates) is known but we want to put Helen at the early part of the sentence so the focus would be on her.]

The doer may be known but we just don't want to mention it/them/him/her especially if the result of the act is unpleasant or disagreeable, or if we do not want to place the blame on someone or something--

Example: An error in computing his salary was committed. The topic was not properly and thoroughly discussed.

When we are talking about a general knowledge or truth--

Example: Promises are made to be broken.

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