27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs

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Passive

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

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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 replacing a passive verb with an active one, while at the same time maintaining the proper respect for passive verbs that they deserve.

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THE STANDARD ADVICE ON REPLACING A PASSIVE VERB

The way in which grammar books usually say a passive verb can be replaced with an active is like this: 

(a) (PASSIVE) The premium should be sent.

(b) (ACTIVE) You should send the premium. 

The problem with this is that the change from the passive to the active voice of the verb necessitates other changes in the sentence that might not necessarily be desirable. One change is of word order: the words the premium 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 switching to 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.

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A BETTER WAY TO REPLACE A PASSIVE VERB

In general, merely changing a passive verb into its active form (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 making the passive verb active 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, a possible active verb replacement for should be sent is should go. Notice how this change from passive to active necessitates no other changes: we simply replace one verb with the other.

The main problem once we decide to seek an active verb that can directly replace a passive is being able to find one. This is probably easier in some cases than others.

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Active Equivalents of Passives without “by”

As a general guideline, passive verb replacement is likely to be easier when there is no following by. In sentence (a) above there is no by after should be sent. If we added the words … by the customer, it might become harder to think of a replacement for should be sent.

Passives without by can also be replaced 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 for 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 … .

A noticeable feature of active verbs replacing a passive without by is that they are usually “intransitive”: they require no directly-following noun and have a passive-like meaning (see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 and 113. Verbs That Cannot be Passive). Further examples alongside go, occurred and came are stands (instead of is located), disappears (for is removed) and stays (for is kept).

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Active Equivalents of Passives with “by”

In sentences with by, the easiest passive verbs to replace with an active are those discussed in the post 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive. You just put the same verb into the active form instead of the passive, without changing the word order, but with a different preposition instead of by, like this:

(i) (PASSIVE) Obesity is increased by overeating.

(j) (ACTIVE)   Obesity increases with overeating. 

In most cases, using the active instead of the passive like this will perfectly well express what you want to say. However, you should bear in mind that there is still a small meaning difference: the passive clearly states the causal role of the idea after by (here overeating), while the active leaves it a little less certain. 

Quite a lot of passive verbs, but by no means all, can be changed like is increased. However, as the post devoted to this topic explains, there is no sure way of predicting which these verbs are: to avoid errors, you need to discover and memorise each one individually (see 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors). Other common verbs like INCREASE are CHANGE, DEVELOP, BEGIN, OPEN and MOVE. Note that all can be changed from passive to active in sentences without by as well as in those with it. 

When a passive verb with by is not like INCREASE, more effort is needed to find a substitute verb that can be used in the active form – 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 

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A few passives with by can be replaced by an active verb without a following preposition. Examples are be controlled by (= obey) and be occupied by (= contain). Many other passives with by are replaceable by BE with a complement and suitable preposition, e.g. is enjoyed by (= is enjoyable for) and is sold by (= is on sale at). Now here is an exercise through which finding active verb replacements for passives may be practised.

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EXERCISE: 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.

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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.

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Answers 

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.

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2 thoughts on “27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs

  1. Excellent. One better sentence might be: Global warming reportedly results from carbon dioxide, however, there is no scientific evidence to validate that claim.

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