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What are Passive Verbs?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

In English, passive verbs are used in the sentence construction known as passive voice. In passive voice, the subject of a sentence is being acted upon, rather than acting, and often appears at the end of the sentence. This is distinguished from the active voice, in which the subject of a sentence performs an action. Examples of passive verbs include “was deleted,” “had been seen,” and “are remembered.” Alternative, active versions of these verbs would be “delete,” “saw,” and “remembers,” each preceded by the subject of the sentence.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a primary resource on English usage, passive verbs have been in use since at least the 14th century. In the previous sentence, the phrase “have been in use” employs the passive voice. An alternative phrase employing active verbs might be, “English speakers have used passive verbs.” The choice of whether to use passive or active verbs depends on numerous factors. These include the importance of the subject and personal or professional stylistic preferences.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Some language guides and organizations actively discourage the use of passive verbs. For example, the classic text The Elements of Style, first published in 1918, favors the active voice over the passive, saying it is “more direct and vigorous.” It does, however, note that the passive voice has its uses. By contrast, some businesses, such as newspapers and online content providers, strongly disapprove of passive verbs or forbid them outright. Ironically, this can sometimes result in production delays and awkward wording.

The sentence, “The store was robbed,” employs passive verbs because the identities of the robbers may not be known. An alternative active sentence, “Robbers robbed the store,” is redundant and awkward. Even if the thieves were identified, the writer may choose the passive voice to place emphasis on the store, not the criminals. In the event of their capture, the writer may say, “The robbers were captured,” because it is obvious they were captured by the police.

A classic example of the use of passive verbs is the sentence, “Mistakes were made.” This phrase is commonly used in politics and business, particularly when a public figure has been caught in wrongdoing. It allows the speaker to seemingly express regret without actually admitting any guilt. Neither the speaker nor anyone else is identified as the culprit, and the act itself is not identified. This is a protective measure in case the speaker is later the target of legal inquiries.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books