Passive verbs should not always be avoided, but when necessary the active form of a different verb (especially the verb BE) can be used instead
THE DESIRABILITY OF PASSIVE VERBS
Many English verbs can be made passive. Examples are is understood, was helped, were being copied, can be taken and should have been known. Passive verbs mostly combine a form of BE (underlined in the examples) with a so-called “past participle”, a verb ending in –ed or irregular equivalent (see 97. Verb Form Confusions).
Sometimes BE is left out (for example in combination with which – see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun), and sometimes it is replaced by BECOME or informal GET, e.g. got hit. The meaning expressed by the passive form is discussed in this blog in the posts 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 and 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning.
It is common to hear English language advisers (teachers, textbooks, word processors) urging avoidance of passive verbs. Here is an example, from a book by R. Palmer entitled Write in Style: A Guide to Good English (Spon, 1993):
The Passive: Avoid unless you have no alternative. “You should send the premium” is nearly always preferable to “The premium should be sent”, and in at least 90% of cases one can find a way to use the active voice. However, the passive voice is a wise choice if you are sure the occasion demands delicacy or diplomacy. (page 156).
Unfortunately, advice like this makes passive verbs sound like an inconvenience. The science of Linguistics, on the other hand, finds plenty of value in passive verbs. It argues that their very existence in English means that they must have their own special uses, and it has some helpful insights into what those uses are. My own suggestions in this area can be read in the more technical “articles” section of this blog under the title Active/Passive Paraphrases in English and What they Mean for Learners. These more positive views of passive verbs mean that even the persuasive critical underlining by word processors needs to be treated with caution (see 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2 and 100. What is a Grammar Error?).
Linguists have, however, established that active verbs are much more common in English than passive ones. This suggests that there might be some advantage in trying occasionally to avoid using the passive voice (for example in paraphrasing – see 80. How to Paraphrase). In this post, I want to indicate some ways of avoiding a passive verb by means of an active one, while at the same time maintaining the proper respect for passive verbs that they deserve.
THE STANDARD ADVICE ON AVOIDING A PASSIVE VERB
The way in which grammar books usually say a passive verb can be avoided is simply by using the same verb in its active form, like this:
(a) (PASSIVE) The package should be sent.
(b) (NO PASSIVE) You should send the package.
The problem with this is that using the active voice of the same verb necessitates other changes in the sentence that might not necessarily be desirable. One involves word order: the words the package are now at the end of the sentence rather than the beginning. This does not seem to be a major change when presented as above, but in a paragraph it can interrupt the flow of reading. Usually, if we choose in a paragraph to begin a sentence with a particular word, we have a reason for doing so, and beginning with a different word will have a different effect (see, for example, 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition).
The other change caused by choosing the active voice is the need to introduce you. It may not seem to matter much whether or not you is mentioned, but again there can be very good reasons for not mentioning it. We may wish to sound formal (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”), or to hide who exactly should do the sending, or simply to be polite.
A BETTER WAY TO AVOID A PASSIVE VERB
In general, merely using the active form of a verb whose passive form seems the natural choice in a sentence (and reordering the rest of the sentence to accommodate it) is not always a good strategy for avoiding the passive. One alternative that some languages allow is using the same verb in the active form with a “reflexive” pronoun – e.g. send itself in (a) above – but English lacks this option (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words).
The solution that I am sure English writers unconsciously adopt most often is using the active form of a completely different verb. In sentence (a) above, for example, a possible active verb alternative to should be sent is should go. Notice how this way of avoiding the passive necessitates no other changes: the word order is the same.
The main problem once we decide to seek an active verb instead of a passive in this way is being able to find one. This is probably easier in some cases than others.
Active Alternatives to Passives without “by”
Passive verbs without by (which are more common those with it) seem the easiest to avoid. In sentence (a) above there is no by after should be sent. If the the meaning by the customer needed to be expressed, there might be more difficulty thinking of an active alternative to should be sent.
Most active verbs that can replace a passive without by seem to be of the “intransitive” kind – requiring no directly-following noun (“object”) and possessing a passive-like meaning (see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 and 113. Verbs That Cannot be Passive). This seems logical: the fact that they lack an object, as passive verbs do, makes the substitution very easy.
Other useful verbs like GO above are COME (resembling verbs like BE BROUGHT), HAPPEN/OCCUR/TAKE PLACE (for BE ARRANGED), STAND (for BE LOCATED), DISAPPEAR (for BE REMOVED) and STAY (for BE KEPT). For more on TAKE PLACE, see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4, #1.
One note of caution regarding the use of active verbs like the above (and indeed any active verb in place of a passive) is that the very change from passive to active affects the meaning: the passive clearly indicates that the subject of the verb has no responsibility for what is being expressed, while the active leaves that a little less certain. However, in many cases this distinction will not matter, and the active will perfectly well express what you want to say.
Passives without by can also be avoided with the verb BE alone, followed by a noun or an adjective, like this:
(c) (PASSIVE) The feast was celebrated annually.
(d) (ACTIVE) The feast occurred annually.
(e) (BE + NOUN) The feast was an annual celebration/occurrence.
Grammar books rarely, if ever, mention the verb BE when giving advice about avoiding passive verbs, and yet it is very useful. Here is another example:
(f) (PASSIVE) Tobacco was introduced from America.
(g) (ACTIVE) Tobacco came first from America.
(h) (BE + NOUN) Tobacco was originally an import from America.
Combining BE with an -ible or -able adjective (e.g. divisible, possible, intelligible, believable, recognizable, removable) is useful instead of passive verbs with can. The ending means the same as can, while the first part nearly always has passive meaning: is divisible, for example, means “can be divided”.
Similar to the use of BE is TAKE PLACE or HAPPEN after an “action” noun (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). For example, (c) above could become The celebration … took place … . Also possible with some action nouns – but making them their object rather than subject – are HAVE and UNDERGO. For examples, see respectively 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE and 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1.
Active Alternatives to Passives with “by”
When a passive would necessitate a by phrase, the easiest active alternatives are those that can be made with the same verb without the rest of the sentence needing to be reordered. Verbs with this special ability are the topic of the Guinlist post 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive. The only other visible difference resulting from their use is that they will need a preposition other than by, like this:
(i) (PASSIVE) Obesity is increased by overeating.
(j) (ACTIVE) Obesity increases with overeating.
Once again the two sentences are not exactly synonymous, but in most cases the difference will not be important.
Quite a lot of passive verbs, but by no means all, can be avoided in the same way as is increased. However, as the post on these verbs explains, there is no sure way of recognising them: to avoid errors, you need to discover and memorise each one individually (see 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors). Other common ones are CHANGE, DEVELOP, BEGIN, OPEN and MOVE. Note that all can be used for avoiding passives without by as well as those with it.
When a passive verb with by cannot be avoided in the same way that INCREASE allows, more effort is needed to find an alternative – but quite often one exists. It will again tend to be intransitive, so that it will need a preposition – different from by – before the subsequent noun. Examples are:
BE OWNED BY – BELONG TO
BE LIKED BY – APPEAL TO
BE PUT UP BY – STAY WITH
BE BEATEN BY – LOSE TO
BE MANAGED BY – REPORT TO
BE LENT … BY – BORROW … FROM
BE TOLD BY – HEAR FROM, UNDERSTAND FROM
BE HIT BY – TAKE A BLOW FROM
A few passives with by can be avoided with an active verb that needs no following preposition. Examples are BE CONTROLLED BY (= OBEY) and BE OCCUPIED BY (= CONTAIN). Active verbs with a passive meaning – HAVE, RECEIVE, SUFFER etc. (see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1) – can be especially useful here.
Many other passives with by are avoidable with BE. Especially notable is BE POSSESSED BY, which equates to there + BE + in (see 161. Presenting Information with “There“). Other examples are BE ENJOYED BY (= BE enjoyable for) and BE SOLD BY (= BE on sale at).
Now here is an exercise through which finding active verb alternatives to passives may be practised.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: PASSIVE VERB REPLACEMENT
Choose an active verb from the following list that could (when adjusted for tense and agreement) best replace the passive verb (underlined) in each sentence below. Answers are given afterwards.
RESULT FROM, AFFLICT, PRECEDE, APPEAL TO, LOSE TO, DEPEND ON, SEEK, USE, BELONG TO, DIE FROM.
1. Shopping is liked by most women.
2. Most plants are killed by a lack of water.
3. Illness is suffered by all human beings.
4. Most cars are propelled by fossil fuels.
5. Insects are often attracted by honey.
6. Global warming is caused by carbon dioxide.
7. The air is owned by everybody.
8. Hard work is not always followed by success.
9. The Dutch football team were beaten by Spain in the World Cup.
10. Young children are looked after by adults.
1 = appeals to; 2 = die from; 3 = afflicts; 4 = use; 5 = seek; 6 = results from; 7 = belongs to; 8 = does not … precede; 9 = lost to; 10 = depend on.