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I heard somebody say "In normal conversation, most native speakers do not go out of their way to use the passive, as student textbooks might lead you to believe we do."
Then when do you 'native speakers' use the passive form specifically?

2
  • I'm not a native speaker, but from what I've seen, it depends whether you want a certain word to be subject of the sentence or speech so that it fits with the topic and flow of the text/speech. The choice is often made by stylistic reasons. – Alejandro Mar 7 '16 at 12:00
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    I don't think about it whatsoever. In other words, during a conversation, I never think to myself, "Now's a good time to use the passive voice," or, "This would be a good time to switch to the active voice." I just talk. – J.R. Mar 7 '16 at 13:23
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The passive voice is used when the agent of the action is unimportant or unknown, or when we want to de-emphasise the agent.

"A jewellery shop was robbed last night." - we don't know who robbed it.

"Eggs were thrown at John Prescott." - we don't know who threw the eggs.

"10mg of copper sulphate was added to the hydrochloric acid solution." - it isn't important who added the copper sulphate.

"Mistakes were made" - we don't want to talk about who made the mistakes.

News reporting and scientific writing are the most common places to find the passive voice.

It's also used when we want to emphasise the agent of the action by putting it at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning. The normal English sentence structure is subject - verb - object but by using the passive voice we can change the order the subject and the object.

"Christopher Columbus discovered America"
versus
"America was discovered by Christopher Columbus."

"A reindeer ran over my grandmother"
versus
"My grandmother was run over by a reindeer."

0

The most common usage of the passive voice if they either don't know, or don't want to say, who or what is the subject of the sentence.

Let's suppose somebody stole my bicycle. I say to my friends:

Some jerk stole my bike yesterday!

I go to the police station to report the crime, and I say:

My bicycle was stolen yesterday.

You can also use it to move the important part of the sentence to the beginning. So I would say to a friend:

A guy from DEFRA handed out the prizes.

but a journalist reporting the event would think about writing:

A spokesman from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs presented the awards.

and then change it to:

The awards were presented by a spokesman from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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  • The end of the sentence is where we put new and important information. We use passives to put the boring info at the beginning so that the important info comes at the end! (see @ssav's answer) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 7 '16 at 14:54

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