4 rules for when to use the passive voice [2019]

Knowing when (and how) to use the passive voice is something that Ss often struggle with at many levels of English study.  A big part of this is because most teachers teach the passives terribly – talking about what it is but not how and when to use the passive in English grammar. 

We’re going to fix that today – by walking you through 4 rules for when to use the passive voice.   So – if you want to master the difference between active and passive voice in 8 minutes or less – read on – and maybe even sign up for the official HeadStart lesson below.

The passive in English grammar

As a rule, when students find out that they’re going to be attending a class on passives, this is normally the response that they give…

And fair enough – the passive is normally taught so badly that it has developed a reputation for being important but very hard to understand and use properly.  As a result, many students are confused and even just avoid using it. 

In this post, we’re not going to focus so much on the form of the grammar – because that’s pretty simple (if you need to review it – we recommend you check out Murphy’s English Grammar In Use).  Instead, we’re going to show you how to use the passive – including the four rules for when to use the passive voice.  Because ultimately, the passive is just a tool and, like any tool, if you don’t know how to use it – it’s useless for you. 

So let’s start by looking at the difference between active and passive voice and comparing the two there. 

Active and passive voice

So let’s say there’s been a horrible storm and that this has happened.

Bugger.  Oh well, nothing to be done I guess – but if we asked you “what happened?” you might say 

  • The storm broke the window
  • The window was broken by the storm
  • The window has been broken by the storm

All three sentences are grammatically accurate but they all have slightly different functions.  The third one is an example of a perfect sentence (present perfect specifically) and that’s not our focus for today so we’ll leave that one there.  Let’s focus instead on the other two – because these are examples of the active and the passive voice in action. 

Active voice

The storm broke the window.  S-V-O.  Nice and easy – the focus is on the subject (the storm) that did the action (broke) the window (the object).  Easy.  The part where it gets tricky is when the teacher introduces the next part – the passive voice.

Passive voice

So normally what teachers will do is that they will write the first sentence on the board (S-V-O), write the second sentence below it (O-V-S*) and walk away – dusting off their hands – like this: 

Now the problem is that this is bad teaching in a number of different ways.  Firstly, it’s not accurate to state that O-V-S (that’s what the * is about above – we knew this would be a problem for some students).  This is a whole discussion about ‘agent’ and ‘patient’ which, unless you’re a linguist, it doesn’t really matter.  More importantly though – it doesn’t help students understand what you actually use the passive voice for – and that’s absolutely key.  Because, again, if you don’t know how (or why) to use a tool – it’s useless to you.  So that’s what we’re going to look at now – with our 4 rules for when to use the passive voice.


4 rules for when to use the passive

Rule 1: When the doer of a given action is unknowable

For example – who created the Earth?

Now on this point there are potential problems as religion and science offer different answers to this this question.  You might say – well, God created Earth.  Well, fair enough – and there’s every possibility that you might be right. 

Remembering though that we’re looking at academic language in general and a certain grammar point in particular, let’s look at the question from a scientific point of view.  After all, science would ask the question – well, who created God?  And we come to the same place again – to a question that has no answer – that is unknowable…  this is why we say

Example sentence: The Earth was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago.   

So that’s the first rule for using the passive – when the doer of a given action is unknowable

Rule 2: When the doer of a given action is an unknowable general group

For example – who built the Great Wall of China?

Now, there are a few answers that might immediately spring to mind.  If you know your Chinese history, you might say Qin Shi Huang (Chinese Emperor from 220 to 210 BC) built the great Wall.  And, in a way, you’d be right – the Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the Great Wall built. 

That said, we sincerely doubt he was out there in his silken robes, lifting stones and putting them into place. 

Alternatively, you might say “Chinese people” built the great wall – and again, in a way, you’d be right.  But to any Chinese people who might be reading this – let me ask, did you build the great wall of China?  Probably not… 

Therefore, the most accurate answer would be ancient Chinese labourers.  That is, an unknowable general group.  This is how we get sentences like this: 

Example sentence:  The great wall of china was built by ancient Chinese labourers.

Rule 3: When the doer of a given action is unknown

For example – who stole my bike?

I could say thieves stole my bike – bad people – but either way, these are still unknown persons.  After all, if I knew who took my bike, I can chase them myself or call the police. 

So this is the third rule for when to use the passive voice: when the doer of a given is unknown. 

Example sentence:  My bike was stolen last Tuesday. 

Rule 4: When the doer of a given action is of less interest than the action you are talking about

To explain this, I want you to imagine that you have done a questionnaire and are writing up the results.  Which sentence is better?

  • “We asked 50 people…” or
  • “50 people were asked…”

50 people were asked – definitely. 

After all, if we are writing the report, most likely it was us asking the questions.  And if not, who cares who asked the questions – the answers are what is important.  So this is the fourth and final rule for using the passive:  when the doer of a given action is of less interest than the action you are talking about.

Example sentence: 50 people were asked the 10 questions that made up the questionnaire. 

Passive voice in academic writing

Passive voice is uniquely important in academic writing.  There is a body of research that suggests that an unusual amount of passive voice grammar is used in academic writing.  While the first three rules are important, this last rule (i.e., ,using the passive when the doer of a given action is of less interest than the action you are talking about) is clearly the most important for us with regard to academic writing [and reading for that matter]). 

So yeah – if you’re interested in getting some practice, be sure to check our lesson on passive voice (here).  Parts of it will look similar to this post at the beginning but we go into the use of passive voice in academic writing in a lot more detail there with practice activities, worked examples, etc.   Definitely worth checking out.

Otherwise, we hope this has been useful for you.  Want to practice these skills with some academic skills exercises?  If the answer is “YES!”, get across to check our academic study skills lessons here!

So that’s us for this HeadStart Guide on how to improve your lecture listening skills in English – we hope it’s been useful!  As always, we’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or comments – write us a post below or follow us on Facebook.   Or, if you want to get more of these blog posts straight to your inbox – join our mailing list.  Or if you have a question or a topic that you’d like us to write a blog post (or even better – a full lesson) about – email us!  We read every email.

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