Passives and genre

Some grammatical features are used much more often in some types of text, or genre, than in others. For instance, imperative clauses (like Chop the carrots finely; Beat the mixture until smooth) are common in instructional genres such as recipes – for obvious reasons.

However, sometimes the reasons for using a particular grammatical structure are less obvious. For instance, why does a speaker or writer use the passive voice (as in The house was sold or The house was sold by his sister) rather than the active (His sister sold the house)? There may be different reasons in different contexts.

In this investigation we are going to look at the passive, and whether it is used more often in some genres than in others. This may help us in thinking about why the passive is used.

Spoken vs. written English

The broadest genre distinction is between spoken and written English. We might pose the question:

Spoken vs. written: Step 1

Step 1. We start by looking for main clauses which are passive in ICE-GB. Our search finds the following:

  passive main clauses
Spoken: 2,241
Written: 3,321
Total: 5,562

We can’t directly compare the numbers for spoken and written numbers of passives. Why?

To do a proper comparison, we need to:

Spoken vs. written: Step 2

Step 2. A search for all main clauses in ICE-GB finds the following:

  passives main clauses
Spoken: 2,241 45,334
Written: 3,321 23,722
Total: 5,562 69,056

Spoken vs. written: Step 3

Step 3. Divide the number of passive main clauses by the number of main clauses to answer the question:

  passives main clauses proportion
Spoken: 2,241 45,334 5%
Written: 3,321 23,722 14%
Total: 5,562 69,056 8%

Comparing written genres

At a more detailed level, we can compare use of the passive in different types of written genre.

There are six different kinds of printed written material contained in the corpus (we will leave aside the non-printed written material, such as letters):

Which genre do you think will contain the highest proportion of passives?

...And the lowest proportion of passives?

We will again search for passive main clauses and all main clauses, and then calculate the proportion of the main clauses that are passive.

This time we will investigate the different printed written categories.

Comparing written genres: results

We find the following:

  passives main clauses proportion
Academic: 907 3,967 23%
Creative: 160 3,510 5%
Instructional: 464 2,362 20%
Non-academic: 772 4,580 17%
Persuasive: 122 1,066 11%
Reportage: 307 2,392 13%
All printed: 2,732 17,877 15%


Examining a written extract

One way of exploring further is to look at one or more extracts in detail, examining examples of passives. For instance, we could choose one of the 40 extracts of academic writing in the corpus.

These individual extracts themselves differ in the proportions of passives used, so we could choose one with a particularly high proportion of passives.

Let’s look at some examples of passives taken from an extract about computer software design. The proportion of passives in this extract is 44% – much higher than the proportion for academic writing overall.

The passive verb phrases are highlighted so you can easily find them. (Remember that we searched only for main clauses which were passive. You may notice some other passive verb phrases which are not highlighted because they are in subordinate clauses, e.g. This paper proposes a means by which Mascot can be used ... .)

Questions for discussion

You could further test your ideas by comparing another extract from an academic text. Choose one of the extracts displayed below. They come from:


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