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12. Active and passive 2

FORM 9

1 The passive and the agent

In a passive sentence, we sometimes mention the agent (the person or thing doing the action).
We use by with the agent.
The cheque must be signed by the manager.
The medals were presented by Nelson Mandela.

But we mention the agent only if it is important for the meaning of the sentence.
Sometimes we do not mention it.

1 We do not mention the agent if it does not add any new information.
All our money and passports were stolen.
A man was arrested last night.
We do not need to say that the money was stolen 'by a thief' or that the man was arrested 'by the police'.

2 We do not mention the agent if it is not important.
The streets are cleaned every day.
Oil has been discovered at the North Pole.
Who discovered the oil is less important than the fact that it is there.

3 It is sometimes difficult to say who the agent is.
This kind of jacket is considered very fashionable these days.
A number of attempts have been made to find the Loch Ness monster.

2 Empty subjects (they, people, etc.)

Compare these two sentences.

The new and important information is how often the streets are cleaned. We are not interested in saying who cleans them. In the active sentence we can use the 'empty subject' they. We sometimes use a sentence with an empty subject instead of the passive, especially in conversation.

We can also use the empty subjects people, you, one and someone.

3 When do we use the passive?

We use the passive in both speech and writing, but it is more common in writing.
We see it especially in textbooks and reports. We use it to describe activities in industry, science and technology, and also for official rules.
Bananas are exported to Europe.
The liquid
is heated to boiling point.
Payment can be made at any post office.
Cars left here
will be towed away.
In these situations, it is often not important to say who is doing the action, or it is difficult to say.

The passive is also often used in news reports.
A number of political prisoners have been released.
Talks will be held in London next week.

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