Although the active voice is predominant in the English language the ‘ideal’ proportion of recommended passive sentences is still regarded as between 5% and 10%(source1) ( source2). Which is substantially more than in languages like Spanish and, though I couldn't find numerical data to compare the percentage use of the passive voice, experience of writing in Spanish and memories of Spanish teachers accustomed to bilingual students warning about overusing the passive voice "like in English", as well as these language learning sites expressing that the passive is not as common in Spanish, Italian and German as it is in English, provide me with some confirmation.

As such, what intrinsic difference does English have that would allow more sentences to make sense in the passive voice than the languages mentioned above? Sources would be appreciated.

P.S. It's still gramatically correct in all the languages mentioned above to use the pasive voice to whatever degree, but many more sentences in this voice would be discouraged as they'd simply not make much sense or be very hard to understand (particullarly in conversations).

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs on linguistics.stackexchange.com. Presuming the accuracy of the statement, it is a great question for linguistics.stackexchange.com (but not for ELU) because it involves the comparison of languages. The answer within English alone is that people speaking English use the passive just the right amount
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 19:10
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    It varies a lot from one language to another what counts as "the passive construction". Sometimes there are several, one officially called "passive", along with others that do the same job, like reflexive verbs, which are very common in (e.g.) Spanish. This is not a question that can be answered because it is not stated precisely enough. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 19:24
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    Irish and Scots Gaelic use passives quite a lot and have several constructions but I guess when you said "other European languages" you meant "certain European languages often taught as second languages". Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 19:53
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    It is difficult to measure how common passives are in a given language as there is enormous variation by register, at least in all the modern languages I know. Academic papers may contain many but the most casual conversation may have as few as two (I was born and raised in...). Certainly these are the only two synthetic passives you need to learn to have a conversation in Scots Gaelic. Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 20:00
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    This interesting subject comes up from time to time. The usual reaction from NS is that it is probably not true. It is more an impression that NNS have.
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 20:18

1 Answer 1


English does often not mark noun phrases for oblique cases. As such, the objects of an action may look like the subject and appear in subject position

You cannot even tell whether it's active or passive in "Alice was driven".

  • I would argue that the sentence "Alice was driven" is definitely in the passive voice. It has at least four possible meanings (someone drove a vehicle in which she was a passenger, someone forced her to walk in a particular direction, she was forced by circumstances into a particular course of action, and she was compelled by her own psychology or upbringing into working exceptionally hard) but, even in the last of these, the language suggests that her ambition was separate from her concious mind and was, therefore, an external force in that sense.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 5:11
  • @BoldBen You missed a very important meaning: Alice was (determined / passionate). Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 8:20
  • @JasonBassford For me that's a shorter way of saying that she was compelled by her own psychology etc. The passion and determination are effects of the psychological condition.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 19:24

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