Formal, or polite, sentences often use the passive voice because it sounds more impersonal and neutral. Active sentences, on the other hand, can seem personal, or direct, which can sound too casual or too aggressive. Consider the following active sentences, and how they might be interpreted:
- You must do something to change this. (Personal threat)
- We will mark the exams this weekend. (Personal action)
Using passive voice for formal sentences
These examples could be made passive, removing the active subject to make them sound more neutral. Consider how they could now be interpreted, in brackets:
- Something must be done to change this. (Neutral fact)
- The exams will be marked this weekend. (Impersonal action)
By removing the agent of the verb, we remove responsibility and relations. The first sentence is no longer direct because we do not emphasise by who, so while it can still raise a threat, it is not a personal one. The second sentence no longer says who will mark the exams, which makes it a more neutral, and less personal, statement.
The passive voice can also be important to emphasise the object, when the object is more important than the subject. For example:
- The team are working on a final report. Bob will present it on Monday.
- The team are working on a final report. It will be presented on Monday.
The first example is used to tell us who is presenting the report, while the second example, with the passive tense, tells us when the report is being presented. If the agent of the action is not important, the neutral passive gives our writing more focus on what is important.
Try to form similar passive sentences from the following active sentences, to make them more formal and less personal, and to emphasise the object:
- They will do their homework.
- I will tell you when the results are ready.
- The janitor will clean up the mess in the toilet.
- We must find the man who broke the window.
- Let the students know we will punish them for cheating.
- We will reward whoever hands in the stolen purse.
- I will give you a prize if you do well in the test.
- I will send you the new timetable next week.
- Give your completed applications to the main office.
- We will give assistance to students with learning difficulties.