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One way to be impersonal and authoritative when you’re writing a formal letter or a report is to use the passive voice. It removes the agent of the action from the sentence thus ‘I will do my homework’ becomes ‘My homework will be done’ (by who is a different question.)

The passive can also remove the touchy matter of direct personal responsibility and inter-personal relations from the sentence. For example, in a formal letter ‘You should do something about this’ sounds rather accusatory; the reader will be much less alarmed by ‘Something should be done about this’ (but not necessarily by me – phew!)

The passive ticks another of the examiner’s boxes, helping you to vary your sentences more by changing the subject (I mean ‘subject in the grammatical sense – look it up!) Imagine you’re writing a report on the effect of a new shopping centre on your local area. ‘The shopping centre will drastically alter the character of the area’ sounds okay, but what if you’ve started the last three sentences with the words ‘the shopping centre’? Why, just put the sentence into the passive as so: ‘The character of the area will be drastically altered by the shopping centre.’

The passive should be used sparingly – and knowingly, most often in formal writing. It can sound pretty daft in the wrong place. You wouldn’t write to your Grandma and tell her, ‘You will be kept informed of all developments,’ when it would be more appropriate just to say, ‘We will let you know what’s happening.’ It can, however, be used, with a sprinkling of irony, in some informal contexts: ‘by the time you arrive, dinner will be prepared and the house will have been thoroughly tidied’

 

Grammar Spot

The passive is formed with the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb ‘be and the past participle of the main verb, so

It is written that…

It should be remembered that

Dinner will be served…

 

Challenge

Write a short report about a school cafeteria and how it could be improved. (Hint: How is it used and misused? What types of food are eaten?)

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