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Writing – Using the Passive

A lot of exam classes and coursebooks focus on the form of the passive and I’m sure that most people know how to “make” a passive sentence. BUT… do you know why you are doing it?

I’m going to start with two sentences that might surprise you:

1) The Passive is not “formal”.

2) The Passive is not “grammar”.

I will explain.

Form

Just to check… the way to “make” a passive sentence is: Object + “be” + Verb 3 (+Subject)

So… “Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings” becomes “The Lord of the Rings was written by Tolkien” and “Someone is robbing me” becomes “I am being robbed” – ‘by someone’ is not necessary.

Why Passive?

OK, I said before that I don’t think passive is grammar. Yes, it has a form, but so does vocabulary. (“Interested + in” for example). So, why do we really use it? Well, here are a couple of examples.

1) Groups of people

The police have arrested three men for burglary.

Scientists say that we are now using more of our brains than before.

  • Only the police can arrest people, so we don’t need the subject.
  • Which scientists? You don’t know, so does it matter that they are scientists?

I would write: “Three men have been arrested for burglary” and “It is said that we are now using more of ours brains than before”.

Is this formal? Well, the news often presents stories including information from groups of people – scientists, students, doctors, teachers… so this may make us associate the passive with formality.

2) Flow of Information

Look at the short paragraph below:

The Internet

Tim Berners-Lee wrote his internet proposal in 1989. Mike Sendall accepted the revision in 1990 and CERN put it online in 1991. The first page that CERN published was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html and it provided an explanation of how the world-wide web worked.

First of all, the text above has no “mistakes”, but it could be improved.

In written text, we try to put new information at the end of a sentence. Look at sentence 1:

“Tim Berners-Lee wrote his internet proposal in 1989.”

The title of the paragraph is “The Internet” so this is not new information. The new information is “Tim Berners-Lee” and “1989”. So, let’s write:

“The proposal for the internet was written by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.” Now the new information is at the end. We can do the same for the second sentence, which is in two parts:

“Mike Sendall accepted the revision in 1990” – Mike Sendall is new information.

“CERN put it online in 1991” – CERN is new information. SO…..

Revisions were accepted by Mike Sendall in 1990 and it was put online by CERN in 1991.

Now let’s look at the next part:

“The first page that CERN published was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html and it provided an explanation of how the world-wide web worked.”

In the first part of the sentence, the new information is the website link. In the second part, the new information is what the website does. So, do we need to write “and an explanation was provided of how the world-wide web worked”? No!

So, after our changes we have:

The proposal for the internet was written by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. Revisions were accepted by Mike Sendall in 1990 and it was put online by CERN in 1991. The first page that CERN published was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html and it provided an explanation of how the world-wide web worked.

This paragraph shows better style, and this is something that examiners look at when marking IELTS and Cambridge Exam papers. One extra thing we could do is avoid repeating “CERN” by using the passive again:

“The first page that was published was……”

Conclusion

Next time you write a paragraph, try checking what you have written and finding the new information. Is it at the end of the sentence or sentence part? If it isn’t, can you change the sentence? Would using passive help or have you used passive in a place that doesn’t need it, meaning that the new information is at the start?

Simon

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