How and when to use the Passive Voice

The passive is recommended in two situations:

  • When it is more important to draw our attention to the person or thing acted upon:

The unidentified victim was apparently struck during the early morning hours.

  • When the actor in the situation (subject) is not important:

The aurora borealis can be observed in the early morning hours.

  • The passive voice is necessary for scientific or technical writing or lab reports, where the do-er is not really important but the process or principle being described is of ultimate importance.
  • Instead of writing, “The scientist poured 20 ml of acid into the beaker,” we would write

Twenty ml of acid was poured into the beaker.

  • The passive voice is also useful when describing, say, a mechanical process in which the details of the process are much more important than anyone’s taking responsibility for the action:

The first coat of primer paint is applied immediately after the acid rinse.

  • We use the passive voice to good effect in a paragraph in which we wish to shift emphasis from what was the object in a first sentence to what becomes the subject in subsequent sentences.

The executive committee approved an entirely new policy for dealing with academic suspension and withdrawal.
The policy had been written by a subcommittee on student behaviour.
The paragraph is clearly about this new policy so it is appropriate that policy move from being the object in the first sentence to being the subject of the second sentence. The passive voice allows for this transition.
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