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Voice: active, passive, and nominalisation Every time a writer or speaker represents an action in a text, they make grammatical

decisions which reflect the significance they attach to: who or what performed the action (the agent) who or what had the action done to them (the recipient)

Active The most common structure for representing actions, particularly in speech and in informal writing, is the active voice. In the active voice, the doer of the action (the agent) is the subject of the verb. The subject is grammatically essential, and often begins the sentence: the verb would not make sense without it. American and British forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, leading to patterns of violence and instability close to civil war.

Passive In the passive voice, the recipient of the action is made the passive subject of the sentence. The doer of the action may or may not be included as a passive agent. Iraq was invaded in March 2003, leading to patterns of violence and instability close to civil war.

Nominalisation Sometimes, an action is represented as an abstract noun rather than a verb. This is called nominalisation. Nominalisation is a highly selective way to represent an action. The agent can easily be omitted. The recipient tends to be included as a modifier, rather than a whole sentence element. Because the action is not even a verb, it feels less like anyone is responsible for performing it.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 led to patterns of violence and instability close to civil war.


Rewrite these sentences, using the passive voice to hide the agency of every action. 1. I heated the test tube to a high temperature. 2. A Labour government nationalised the health service in the 1940s. 3. The dog attacked the intruder. 4. The police informed me that they had found my car. 5. We can obtain these books from the library. 6. The two footballers chased the referee off the pitch. 7. I smoked a whole packet of cigarettes yesterday. 8. His sister hit him on the arm with a fairy cake.


Below are three short texts, written entirely in the active voice. Rewrite each entirely in the passive voice, making sure you change every verb you can. It is up to you whether or not you include agent phrases: do whatever sounds right in the context. 1. They drove the car quickly away from the scene of the crime. They had blown open the safe, shot the security guard and left him for dead. A bystander called the emergency services and a passing motorist comforted the guard until they arrived. 2. I took a group of 40 people and surveyed their attitudes to alcohol. I found that most of the people surveyed drank more alcohol per week than the level that the government recommends. 3. If you take out a mortgage, the building society will repossess your house if you do not keep up the monthly payments. You must inform the building society if you are going to make late or reduced payments at any time.


In these three texts, which voice do you think is more appropriate, active or passive? What differences in meaning or emphasis result from your use of the passive voice? What types of text, in your experience, are likely to use passive

structures? Can you think of any valid reasons for using the passive, as well as disingenuous ones?