(6) What is a passive and why should you care?
clauses in English are paraphrases of active, transitive clauses.
In other words, a clause like The cats chased the rats (which is
active and transitive) has a paraphrase The rats were chased by the
cats; similarly the active A spy has seen me has a passive I
have been seen by a spy. There are several properties that distinguish
passive clauses from active ones:
There is always a form of be (be, been, being, am, is, are, was,
were) as the verb immediately before the main verb (in these cases,
chased and seen).
The subject of the passive is the same as the first object of the active
(in these cases, the rats and I (me)).
The subject of the active can appear as the object of the preposition by
in the passive.
The main verb is always a past participle in the passive (in these cases,
chased and seen).
A passive clause like I was hit by a car or Ozzie has been
treated for his illness implies the existence of an active clause like
A car hit me or Someone has treated Ozzie for his illness.
If you cannot find an appropriate active in which the subject of the passive
occurs as an object, your passive is probably not a good sentence.
So Harriet has been happened to get ill is ungrammatical, since
there is no grammatical sentence (Something/Someone) has happened Harriet
to get ill.
In general, you want to avoid using passives unless
The primary rhetorical reasons to use a passive include
you are quite confident that there is an appropriate passive, and
you have an appropriate rhetorical reason to use it.
If you want to avoid mention of the subject of the active, converting the
clause into a passive and omitting the by phrase works admirably.
In this way, I was attacked allows the speaker to talk about the
event without overt mention of the attacker. You can avoid identifying
the attacker by using an indefinite pronoun (or other indefinite noun phrase)
as in Someone attacked me or Some idiot attacked me.
However, both of those imply that the speaker does not know the identity
of the attacker. If you merely want to avoid mention of the attacker,
a passive clause is appropriate. Similarly, Bears attacked
me suggests greater focus on bears than does I was attacked by bears
and a concomitantly lesser focus on I (me).
avoiding mention of the subject of the active or decreasing the prominence
of the subject of the active;
increasing the prominence of the object of the active; and
making the event itself less active.
was attacked by Charley.
teacher gave the children some candy.
children were given some candy by the teacher.
children were given some candy.
considered Mary a genius.
was considered a genius by everybody.
was considered a genius.
is watching me.
am being watched by somebody.
am being watched.
have bothered her.
has been bothered by them.
has been bothered.
this helped you?
you been helped by this?
you been helped?
Why should you care?
First, because this is a construction non-native
speakers often get wrong. They try passives of verbs
which are not transitive, for example. The victim was killed
is a perfectly fine passive (kill is a verb that takes an object), but *The victim was died is not (die is not a verb
that takes an object).
Second, because even if the passive might
be grammatical, it might not be rhetorically appropriate.
Third, because it is a technical term which
lots of teachers use (sometimes appropriately, sometimes not) and if they
are objecting to something about your writing, it is preferrable to know
what that something is.
To read more about this topic, look at Elizabeth Siler's "Understanding the Active and Passive".