P is for Passive

18 07 2010

Obama: male or female?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker adduces evidence from President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil-well blow-out to suggest that his speaking style is more female than male. Apparently Obama’s speech “featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.” The use of the passive voice is, supposedly, a characteristic of female speech – the sort of gender myth that drives Deborah Cameron crazy (see my previous post G is for Gender).

In refuting Parker’s cod-linguistics, the Atlantic Wire quotes University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who “finds that Obama’s speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush’s Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive”.

In any case, he adds, “there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are ‘feminine’… The ‘passive is girly’ prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive.”

Newspaper columnists are not alone in misrepresenting the significance of the passive. Student grammars are also at fault. A trainee of mine recently brought to my attention the following explanation of the use of the passive in a reputable grammar reference text:

Active and passive sentences often have similar meanings, but a different focus.

Active sentences focus on the agent (the person or thing doing the action). Millions of people read the magazine. (The focus is on the people.)

Passive sentences focus on the object (the person or thing receiving the action).

The magazine is read by millions of people. (The focus is on the magazine.)

Assuming that by ‘focus’ is meant ‘the important information’, this is so wrong as to be the exact opposite of the case, and is a good example of what happens when you try to fabricate rules out of de-contextualised examples. So, let’s create a plausible context:

The National Geographic is an American institution. The magazine is read by millions of people.

In the second sentence, the magazine refers back to a previously mentioned topic (The National Geographic). In other words, it is “given information” (the definite article indicates as much, even in the absence of the context). The new information is everything that follows (is read by millions of people), and conforms to the convention in English (and in many other languages) that new information is placed towards the end of the sentence – what is called “the end-weight principle”.  The rule given in the grammar book – that “active sentences focus on the agent” and “passive sentences focus on the object” – wrongly implies that the so-called focus of a sentence is its subject. The focus (if by focus we mean ‘the important information’) is in fact everything that is not the subject, i.e. everything that follows the main verb. Thus, the passive is one of several devices available to move new information to the end of the sentence, even when that new information is the agent of the verb. Compare the following two ‘mini-texts’:

  1. Ludwig von Beethoven was a German composer. He composed the Pastoral Symphony.
  2. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. It was composed by Ludwig von Beethoven.

    Beethoven: active or passive?

In the second sentence of Text 2, a passive structure is enlisted simply to push the new information to the end of the sentence in order to ‘focus’ on it. (The end-weighted matter, incidentally, also receives the most stress when spoken – a further indication of its ‘focal’ value). Compare Text 2 above with the less convincing – albeit grammatically well-formed – alternative:

2a. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. Ludwig von Beethoven composed it.

Curiously, the same point came up in a teaching practice class this week. In her reflections on a lesson, a teacher recounted the following:

On the board I wrote:

In the 1880’s, the telephone was invented.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

I asked students, “What is the focus of each sentence?” They did fine on the first two, but answered, “by Alexander Graham Bell,” for the third.   At this point, I said well actually the focus is on the telephone.   The meaning of the structure is to place emphasis on the noun (subject) that fronts the sentence.  The students not knowing this, couldn’t make sense of the concept check question.

In fact, as I pointed out to the teacher, the students were right!



26 responses

18 07 2010

A magnificent debunking of hand-me-down received ‘wisdom’.

Why have I never seen your explanation anywhere else? Are you the only person in the world who understands the passive (apart from me, now).

18 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Glennie.

In fact, in the original edition of An A-Z (2006) I analyse the passive in identical terms:

There are many reasons for putting the patient into the subject position (i.e. for using the passive). One reason is in order to distribute information according to what is not known (or given) and what is known (or new), Very generally, there is a tendency to place given information at the beginning of the sentence and new information at the end. …

19 07 2010
Vicki Hollett

Delighted to see this old chesnut debunked. So what guidelines do you like to give students (if any)? I feel pretty comfortable with Swan’s explanation – if we’re interested in what people or things do, we generally use active forms. If we’re interested in what happens to them, we generally use passives. How do you feel about that?

19 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Vicki – first of all I would distinguish between the ‘long passive’ (i.e. the construction where the agent is identified in a prepositional phrase: “My aunt was abducted by aliens”) and the ‘short passive’, where no agent is mentioned “Caesar was assassinated”. In the case of the long passive, the rule of end-weight seems to apply, and is best dealt with as a feature of discourse. On the other hand, the short passive:

is used because the agent is not known (My bike’s been stolen), or is obvious (A man has been arrested), or because the speaker doesn’t wish to identify the agent (Your application has been turned down).

(An A-Z of ELT)

But, even then, discourse features, such as the distinction between given and new, will apply.

For the given/new distinction, one exercise I like to use is to ask learners to continue a text by choosing the best follow-on sentence. So:

1. The first person to set foot on the moon was Neil Armstrong.
a. He led the Apollo 11 mission.
b. The Apollo 11 mission was led by him.

2. Armstrong collected rocks from the moon’s surface.
a. Scientists all over the world have studied these rocks.
b. These rocks have been studied by scientists all over the world.

3. Armstrong left scientific instruments on the moon.
a. The instruments sent information to the earth.
b. Information was sent to the earth by the instruments.


19 07 2010
Vicki Hollett

Wow, that’s terrific. Thanks Scott, that’s really clear.

19 07 2010

A colleague has problems with the idea of ‘focus’. I think he sees focus as a synonym of topic (rheme?), and not as a synonym of what you have to say about it.
So would it be fair to say that, given a certain co-text (previous sentence/utterance), the passive enables the speaker to choose a topic and say something about it?

19 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Glennie. Good question. The problem is really with the the term ‘focus’, which is used in the student grammars, but is not (as far as I know) used by grammarians or discourse analysts – who – as you rightly point out – prefer the term ‘topic’ (for whatever takes subject position) and ‘comment’ (for whatever is said about the topic, and which is typically ‘new information’). As it is, students and teachers tend to think of ‘focus’ as being ‘what’s important’ – i.e. the newsworthy information, aka the comment – as opposed to the starting point of the utterance, i.e. the topic. If the student grammar I quoted in my post had said:

The magazine is read by millions of people.
The magazine is the topic, and read by millions of people is the comment.

they would have been on safer ground.

Maintaining topic consistency is another function of the passive. Here’s what I have to say about it in Beyond the Sentence (Macmillan 2005):

If English only had active sentence constructions it would be difficult to divert the reader’s focus on to what is newsworthy in a sentence. Moreover, it would be difficult to maintain topic consistency over extended stretches of text. Compare these two versions of the same text (passive verb forms are in bold):


… Napoleon regained power in 1815. He ruled for a hundred days. But Wellington defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon surrendered to the British and they exiled him to St Helena where he died in 1821.


… Napoleon regained power in 1815. He ruled for a hundred days. But he was defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. He surrendered to the British and he was exiled to St Helena where he died in 1821.

19 07 2010

Thanks for that.

19 07 2010

Scott. Once again thanks for an entry that gets one thinking. As I routinely knocked my teacher trainer students’ inane exercises: “Change the following setences from Active into Passive”, “Change the following sentences from Passive into Active” I used to comment that Active/Passive was more a question of style than anything else. I could not detect any other important difference in meaning between “Shakespeare wrote ‘ Hamlet’ and ‘Hamlet’ was written by Shakespeare. Is that / was that over-simplistic? Dennis

19 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Style does have a lot to do with the use of the passive – in the sense that the passive is more common in certain text types and registers. As I point out in An A-Z:

The passive is much more common in written language than in spoken, making up around 25% of all finite verbs in academic writing, but occurring only rarely in casual conversation.

But because it is more common in some registers than in others does not mean that its use is arbitrary. Its relative frequency in academic writing is a direct result of its capacity to create agent-less sentences.

As for your example (Shakespeare wrote ‘ Hamlet’ and ‘Hamlet’ was written by Shakespeare) I would say that the difference is not at all stylistic, but is discoursal, in the same way as my Beethoven example. Compare these two mini-texts:

1. Shakespeare and Marlowe were contemporaries. Shakespeare wrote ‘Hamlet’. ….
2. The much-quoted line ‘To be or not to be’ occurs in the play ‘Hamlet’. ‘Hamlet’ was written by Shakespeare…

Switch the second sentence around, in each case, and the texts lack cohesion.

19 07 2010

Scott. Checked on various definitions of style: discourse, but would much appreciate it if you could repeat yours. Dennis

19 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Willingly, Dennis! Here are the relevant entries (or the beginnings thereof) in An A-Z of ELT:

Style is a (usually deliberate) choice of a particular way of saying or writing something. There is often more than one way of conveying the same message. The choice of which one is determined by (1) specific contextual factors, such as the degree of formality that is required; or (2) a particular effect that the person wants to achieve. In both cases, the choice is a stylistic one.

Discourse is any connected piece of speaking or writing (like this). Discourse analysis is principally the study of how such stretches of language achieve both cohesion and coherence. Whereas traditional grammar is concerned only with sentences and their components, discourse analysis seeks to identify patterns and regularities of language “beyond the sentence”.

So, the choice of passive rather than active may be a stylistic one if it is aimed at achieving a degree of formality (“Unauthorised photocopying is not permitted”) or it may be motivated by discourse considerations, e.g. maintaining topic consistency in the interests of cohesion: “‘Hamlet’ was written in 1601. It was first performed a year later…” (I invented the facts, by the way, so don’t quote me – or correct me!))

20 07 2010

How lovely to find such considered discussion on points of grammar and style and yet there are people who still doubt the value of the Internet.

I wonder if the advice to prefer active voice comes from fiction/storytelling? In fiction/storytelling it makes sense to make the focus of the sentence the subject, as your overriding concern is to create a protagonist acting with will in an antagonistic world.

And that advice has perhaps slipped into corporate writing perhaps because of marketeers (like me!) trying to persuade folk to give personality to their writing?

Just a thought. Thanks for the enlightening discussion.

20 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Robyn for your enthusiastic comment. I think you’re right, that fiction favors the active voice, because narrative action assumes some kind of human agency – it would be odd to find a story whose protagonist was solely the passive recipient of other people’s actions!

But I think the prejudice against the passive stems more from the fact that, by eliding the agent, the passive is often used to obscure facts or to avoid attributing responsibility, or is seen as impersonal and hence insincere. Proof of which is the fact that the MS-Word ‘Grammar Check’ will seek out and destroy the passive on sight!

21 07 2010
Marisa Constantinides

Dear Scott,

The discourse aspect of why passives are chosen is mostly neglected in grammars, especially grammars for students, and it is great to see it highlighted so clearly.

Some text level practice materials would also not go amiss, such as comparing two texts in active and passive and discussing how choice of one or the other affects cohesion, the balance of given vs new information and maintains a more or a less unified theme focus in each case.

21 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Great idea, Marisa! This immediatelyt makes me want to design a text that is ALL passive or ALL active, and then give it to students to ‘correct’. The first of the two Napoleon examples (above), if extended, might serve as a model.

25 07 2010
Marisa Constantinides

I have one which I regularly use as a sample lesson on the passive – you want, I send…:-)

23 07 2010

Hello Scott,

Thanks for (yet another) interesting and thought provoking blog post.

Just today I read this from a course participant:

The third grade of Middle school students who were taught by me were asked to write English journal during the summer vacation in 2009.

I suggested that she “make it more active.” I suppose what I really wanted her to show her involvement in this decision and “take responsibility.”

24 07 2010

What happened to “Q is for quote marks”? Was it a sophisticated teaser tactic?

25 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

No, just an accident, Alex. But now you can read the full post!

19 08 2010

Thoroughly interesting, especially in terms of discourse analysis. Thanks Scott, I’ve forwarded my EAP students the link to consider!

Also, Marisa… Do you have a copy of that passive text task that you could send me, pllleeeasse? You’ve got my email (Athens Celta)! Thanks again, I love the fact that this may completely change the ubiquitous ‘passive-active’ lessons that crop up in textbooks as Dennis mentions. Cheers! 🙂

29 08 2010

I’ve lost count of the number of epiphanies I’ve experienced while reading this blog, and now you’ve added another. The role of the passive in maintaining cohesion in a text is the itch I have been unable to scratch in my advanced students’ written work. Many thanks for pointing it out.

15 02 2013
Amy Tate

Scott — Thank you so much for this post. I’m teaching the passive in an advanced grammar class next week for the first time, and as I was driving today thinking about my textbook (which gives an explanation of the passive very similar to the one you quote in your entry) and my lesson, I actually thought of a discussion we had in Language Analysis class last summer. We were discussing there is/there are, and you said that the structure is a result of needing to put the important information at the end of the sentence. So why, I wondered, does the passive do the complete opposite?

I came home, and fortunately had the good sense to look at this blog. The passive voice doesn’t do the opposite — my book was just wrong. Again, thank you! The idea of giving these isolated passive sentences some context is so brilliantly simple and doable. Now I just need to come up with some good examples using modals in the passive as that is the learning outcome I’m tackling.

Best, Amy

19 04 2013
Aaron Woodcock (@aaronwoodc)

Hi Scott,

I’m writing an essay on micro-level discourse (specifically the given-new principle) and have found differences in the definition of ‘”end-weight”, which is confusing me. Your definition of end-weight – the tendency to place newsworthy information in the latter part of a sentence – is what some linguists seem to call “end-focus”. These linguists define end-weight being the tendency to place longer structures towards the end of a sentence.

I would appreciate any clarification you could offer.

Many thanks,

Aaron (English Teacher, Exeter, UK)

19 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Aaron: I hadn’t considered the difference between end-weight and end-focus before, but I think you are right. I’ve checked my available sources, and although Biber et al. (The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English) have no mention of end-focus, they do have this to say on end-weight:

In any clause, elements are frequently of different size and complexity, or weight…. There is a preferred distribution of elements in the clause in accordance with their weight called the principle of end-weight: the tendency for long and complex elements to be place towards the end of the clause. (p.898)

And now, trying to find a definition of end-focus, I find that in Leech and Svartik (A Communicative Grammar of English, Longman,1975) both end-weight and end-focus are compared:

When deciding in which order to place the ideas in a sentence, there are two principles to remember:

End-focus: the new or most important idea or message in a piece of information should be placed towards the end, where in speech the nucleus of the tone unit normally falls…

End-weight: the more ‘weighty’ part(s) of the sentence should be placed towards the end…. Otherwise the sentence may sound awkward and unbalanced. The ‘weight’ of an element can be defined in terms of its length (i.e. number of syllables or words). (p.199)

So, it just goes to show – you learn something every day!

22 05 2013
James Thomas

Using the passive to avoid responsibility: “This is me playing the elephant on double bass unaccompanied. A few mistakes were made but I just deccided to upload it anyway!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gH13DfqchoU

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