Too Passive about the Passive Voice?

So I know I need to be concise when I write, and they say it’s better to use dynamic language. Does that mean I should avoid the passive?  What about in spoken English?

Students’ questions about the passive voice reveal common confusion over when to use it. The easy way out is not to use it. Especially if there’s a by-phrase naming the agent, a student may conclude it’s easier and probably clearer to replace a passive construction with an active one.

How can we help students understand when the passive voice is the better choice? A discussion could start with concrete examples found in the news. If a writer has a choice between an active or passive verb, why does one work better? Rather than explain to students how different structures shift the focus, have students play around with the structures and form conclusions about the the change in emphasis. Click to view a model based on celebrity photo captions. For instance, did the police arrest an actor last night or was the actor arrested? Considering the situation, would it be fair to say the actor got himself arrested?

Students can learn that the passive not only shifts the focus, but it also helps us determine what information is important and therefore worth mentioning. For instance, if we get into hardcore news events and ask students to summarize, we can give them some prompts with the passive: It is believed that… / It was reported that…  If we don’t need to identify who believes or who reports, It constructions with the passive make sense.

Students may not realize they’re using the passive when they talk about a friend getting married or explain how they got lost the other day. Get-passive constructions could be a good place to start a discussion about the passive, emphasizing that something is happening to the subject — there’s a change in state. Click to view a small group activity using get-passive constructions.

The stative passive could logically follow get-passive constructions. Students need to learn that not all passive verbs can have a by-phrase. The stative passive is easy enough to understand; the challenge is learning the collocations. Which prepositions go with which verbs? Multiple exposure and a meaningful context will help reinforce the combinations. Click to view an activity using 15 stative passive verbs.

Context is always key in language studies, and it’s particularly important that the passive causative be contextualized for ELLs to grasp the difference between cutting your hair and getting your hair cut. [subject + causative verb + object + past participle + (agent)] Click to view a pair activity on the passive causative using the verbs have, get, want, and need.





How do you like to teach passive constructions?



Photo credits:

Haircut (April 2009) by Beth. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Haircut (November 2008) by Dan4th Nicholas. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.



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