The 'By-phrase' and the Passive Voice

23 May, 2019

In a famous scene in the American film Clerks, two of the characters have a disagreement. They debate which "Star Wars" film is the best.

"Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader's his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that's what life is, a series of down endings."

You just heard an example of the passive voice: "Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett."

Today, on Everyday Grammar, we will examine how the passive voice is used in the English language. Specifically, we will look at how English speakers use the "by-passive" or a "by-phrase" to show who did what.

First, let's talk about some definitions.

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The "by-passive" and the "by-phrase"

Passive sentences usually do not say who the agent is. The agent is often a person, but it could also be a group of people or even an organization. In any event, passive sentences generally do not make it clear who is doing an action.

Consider this situation. Imagine you leave your bicycle somewhere. You return later to get the bicycle and continue your trip, but you cannot find it. Then someone tells you, "Your bike was stolen."

Here, the identity of the person who stole the bike is unknown.

However, sometimes it is important to give the identity of the person, even when using the passive voice. When this is the case, English speakers often use a by-phrase -- the word "by" followed by a noun or noun phrase. We call this the "by-passive."

How would our sentence about the bicycle change if it included a "by-phrase?" Imagine a police officer shows you video camera images of the person stealing your bicycle. The officer might identify the thief by saying the following:

"Your bicycle was stolen by an old woman."

Now, you might be asking yourself why English speakers would use the passive voice with a by-phrase instead of the active voice. In our example, the officer could have said, "An old woman stole your bicycle."

The by-passive and active voice have a stylistic difference. But the two sentences have the same basic meaning.

There are several reasons why English speakers use the by-passive instead of the active voice.

Reason #1 – New vs. Old Information

The first reason is that English speakers like to give information in a specific order. English speakers often put "old" information at the beginning of the sentence. The old information relates to people or things that readers or listeners already know about.

English speakers like to put "new" information at the end of the sentence. These additional details or facts usually are more important than the "old" information.

So, in our example, the "new" or surprising information is that it was an old woman who stole the bicycle. You already knew about the disappearance of the bike when you watched the video. In other words, the bike's disappearance was "old" information to you.

Reason #2 – The Agent Noun Phrase is Long

The second main reason that English speakers use the by-passive is because the agent noun phrase is long. Consider this example:

"Your bicycle was stolen by an old woman who was wearing a clown costume."

Here, the phrase, "an old woman who was wearing a clown costume," is somewhat long.

English speakers often choose to use the passive voice instead of the active voice when the agent noun phrase is lengthy.

If the sentence were in the active voice, it might be something like this: "An old woman who was wearing a clown costume stole your bicycle."

Once again, in this case, the difference between the active voice and passive voice is about style and emphasis.

What can you do?

We gave you examples of the by-passive in everyday speech and popular culture. But you should know that the by-passive is probably most common in another kind of communication: academic writing.

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are two experts on the English language. They note that the by-passive is especially common with some verbs. Those verbs are special because they identify a kind of information, not a human agent.

Nevertheless, you now have the tools to recognize when an academic writer is using the passive voice. If you read a sentence that starts with "The health of the economy is determined by ________," you should recognize that you are probably dealing with the passive voice. You can also probably predict that a noun or noun phrase follows the word "by."

Understanding this idea will help you identify the passive voice and give you a better chance of understanding the main idea of a passive sentence.

The passive voice is difficult, and you should use it carefully. But looking carefully for clues, such as "by-phrases," can help you understand when English speakers use it.

And that's Everyday Grammar.

This story was read by John Russell.

And by Jill Robbins.

John Russell wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

scene – n. a part of a play, movie or story in which an action or activity takes place

character - n. a person who appears in a story, book, play, movie, or television show

bicycle – n. a foot-powered vehicle with two wheels

stylistic - adj. of or relating to a way of doing things

costume - n. the clothes that are worn by someone (such as an actor) who is trying to look like a different person or thing

emphasis - n. special importance or attention given to something

academic – adj. of or related to a school or studies

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