Consider these three sentences:
- The Prime Minister opened the Seremban substation on 14 May, 1988.
- The Seremban substation was opened by the Prime Minister on 14 May, 1988.
- The Seremban substation was opened on 14 May, 1988.
You will notice that the first sentence has an active structure with the verb opened (past simple), while examples 2 and 3 contain passive structures. In this case, both are simple past passive which is formed with was + past participle.
You will notice in the three examples above that the meaning is essentially the same. The passive, however, can change the emphasis. From the above examples which would you use in the following:
- in a report entitled ‘Maintenance of Power Supply’
- in a newspaper article on ‘The hectic life of the Prime Minister’
- on a commemorative plaque
In a formal report on power supply, it is not important who opened the substation, however important he is, so the information is left out as in 3.
In a newspaper article with a focus on the Prime Minister, he remains the centre of attention and, therefore, we use an active tense with the Prime Minister as the subject (1).
A commemorative plaque celebrates both the actual opening and who opened it (2).
The passive is used when the person who performs the action is unknown, obvious or not the key focus of attention. Passive structures are more common in formal situations such as reports or minutes. The use of the passive leads to an impersonal style that suits this type of writing. It can distance the reader from the subject and is a way to avoid blame, or sometimes, in a more negative sense, evade responsibility.
It was decided to move the office to Batu Pahat.
It was agreed that Azman should leave by the end of the month.
It was determined that legal action should not be taken.
Get something done is another common passive form. It is more informal than the standard passive. For example, compare these two sentences:
The house got badly damaged in the floods.
The house was badly damaged in the floods.
There is no difference in meaning, but you are more likely to use the first example in less formal contexts than the first.
You should note that we do not use this structure “get + past participle” when talking about longer, more planned actions:
The company was founded in 1978. This is fine.
We would not say: The company got founded in 1978.
Newspapers are full of passives. A good way of studying this area is to look at each example and think about why they are being used. Happy hunting!
Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit it at www.britishcouncil.org.my or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.