Agentless Passives

Remember that all passive sentences are derived from active sentences. The so-called agentless passive--a sentence without a "by-phrase"--is interesting because it is derived from an active sentence without an explicit subject, a sentence that isn't possible in English.

A sentence like: The bank was robbed.

Comes from an underlying active sentence something like:

[SUBJECT] robbed the bank.

The agentless passive has a number of uses:

  1. When the agent is unknown.

    The car was stolen

  2. When the agent is irrelevant or unimportant.

    For example, agentless passives are common in descriptions of scientific experiments where the emphasis is on what was done not on who did it.

    Measurements were made.

    Data were collected.

  3. When you want people to forget the agent.

    Mistakes were made.

    Taxes will be increased.

    Benefits will be reduced.

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Comments to: Sara Kimball
Last updated January, 2001