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QuestEng: Passive voice

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The Passive Voice
Subject + (be) + past participle

For example:

The museum is visited every Friday. (present tense)
The cathedral was built was in 18th century. (past tense)
A new mosque is being built across the street. (present continuous tense)
A big mess has been made in Colosseum. (present perfect tense)
The pet store will be open tomorrow. (future tense)

What's the difference between active voice and passive voice?

active: Gaudi built the Sagrada La Familia in Barselona long ago.
passive: The Sagrada La Familia in Barselona was built by Gaudi long ago.

In an active sentence, the person or thing responsible for the action in the sentence comes first.
In a passive sentence, the person or thing acted on comes first, and the actor is added at the end, introduced with the preposition "by."

In the sentences above, "was built" is in passive voice while "built" is in active.

In a passive sentence, we also often do not mention the actor completely:
The Sagrada La Familia in Barselona was built long ago.

When do we use passive voice?

  1. If the actor is unknown: The cave paintings were made in the Upper Old Stone Age. (We don't know who made them.)
  2. The actor is irrelevant: An experimental solar power plant will be built in the Australian desert. (We are not really interested who exactly is building it.)
  3. You do not stress who is responsible: Mistakes were made.
  4. Talking about a general truth: Rules are made to be broken. (Whenever by whoever.)
  5. You want to emphasize the person or thing acted on: Incredible samba dancing is performed both by Brazilian and foreign artists.
  6. You are writing in a scientific style that traditionally relies on passive voice. The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water.

When do we avoid passive voice?

Passive sentences can get you into trouble of writing in difficult to understand academic style:
  • Both Brazilian and foreign artists dance through the night. They might sometimes cause inconvenience to elder local citizens. (Who causes inconvenience? Brazilian artists? Foreign artists? Both of them?)

Also, please, note:
Passive sentences may sound wordy and indirect. They can make the reading unnecessarily hard. And since they are usually longer than active sentences, passive sentences take up too much room on your paper:
  • Since the city was being ruled by the unknown leader at this historical period, the time couldn't be described in detail by the researchers.
(That's just too wordy.)
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