Believe it or not, I'm a professional editor, and as such, I read a lot of ESL papers. Due to all the non-native-type errors, I forgot the rule about passive voice in complex sentences, and now nothing looks right to me anymore. My question is: can you modify a passive voice verb phrase with an active verb phrase? (obviously I am not an expert on using proper English terms, but I'm pretty good at knowing what looks right and what doesn't, even if sometimes I'm not exactly sure how to explain an error or correction) For example, can you say:

The words were spoken by uttering them.

OR does this have to say:

The words were spoken through utterances.

The first doesn't look right to me, but I honestly can't tell anymore. My understanding is that you must modify a verb phrase with a subject, but in the first sentence, nothing is modifying "by uttering." Right??? SEND HELP.

  • Sorry, I know that wasn't a good example. I'm not talking contextually, I'm talking literally. How about: "The children were evaluated by assigning them scores." This should say "The children were evaluated through score assessments" or something similar, correct? As in, only a noun phrase is appropriate after the passive verb.
    – Jamie B
    Dec 14, 2018 at 6:39

1 Answer 1


Well, both are grammatical but extremely awkward. There's no reason to have both "speak" and "utter" in the same sentence, as they're synonyms. Why not just say "The words were uttered" and leave it at that?

My point is, with this example, it's difficult to show that this sentence structure is OK. Let's try something else:

The message was transmitted by varying the frequency of a communications laser


The message was transmitted through variations in the frequency of a communications laser

Hopefully, these both look fine to you? There may be more compact ways to say this, but none I can think of which use the passive voice. You could imagine either appearing in a scientific journal, where the passive voice is fairly standard.

With your other example

The children were evaluated by assigning them scores.

again, the problem is redundancy. "Assign scores" means more or less the same thing as "evaluate", and which is probably why you feel like something is off with the sentence. Otherwise it's fine, which you should be able to see with a different verb phrase:

The children were evaluated by comparing their respective weight-to-height ratios.

The children were evaluated through a comparison of their respective weight-to-height ratios.

Which is better depends on context. Although the first sentence is slightly less wordy, the second might be easier to understand.

[Edit] If you're still having trouble, trying changing these to the active voice and see if they look better. There should be little difference between the two, since the phrases in question are basically adverbial, and not the objects of the verb.

We evaluated the children by comparing their respective weight-to-height ratios.

Side note: Sources like Grammarly are unreliable because they flag the passive voice as "incorrect" based on common style guides for expository writing (although Grammarly does seem to now have various options, so that should help). Grade school teachers commonly tell young students not to use the passive voice because it weakens an argument -- if someone is doing something, then state that clearly. For example, rather than:

The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority


The committee passed the bill by an overwhelming majority

However this gives these students the impression that the passive voice is always wrong, which could not be farther from the truth. There are many contexts where the passive voice is preferred, especially in cases were you either don't want to or can't name the subject.

Although the actual sources are unclear, nevertheless the river has been polluted, and investigators say the malefactors will be brought to justice.

Still, it's better for young students (and ESL students) to avoid using the passive voice, at least until they understand when it is appropriate. Many may prefer it as a way of avoiding offending someone (as the passive might be more appropriate in their native language), but part of learning English involves understanding the preference (at least the American preference) for direct communication.

  • See, even looking at your first sentences (by varying/by comparing), these still don't sound right to me. I even entered them into Grammarly, which flagged "passive voice misuse" on these two and my own examples (by uttering/by comparing). I apologize for the redundancy in my examples, as you can tell, my brain isn't exactly working right now :( I appreciate your help!
    – Jamie B
    Dec 14, 2018 at 7:21
  • 1
    @JamieB Grammarly is not a very reliable reference, as it throws many false positives. Students are often taught it's poor style to use the passive voice, but few are taught why, as many teachers probably neglect to explain that it usually "weakens" an expository essay -- but that doesn't mean you should never use it. Scientific articles routinely use the passive voice, for example, as a way of dissociating the results from the researchers, as if to say "anyone can achieve this result using these methods".
    – Andrew
    Dec 14, 2018 at 7:44
  • @JamieB This is probably why Grammarly finds it easier to flag all passive examples as "improper", when it actually depends on the context. As an exercise, change these to the active voice and see if they look better?
    – Andrew
    Dec 14, 2018 at 7:45
  • Ah, makes sense. In that case, I will try your exercise and hope it helps. Thank you again for your time and your help! Very much appreciated.
    – Jamie B
    Dec 14, 2018 at 7:56

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