For the OET writing sub-test, candidates are required to produce a letter. This is typically a referral letter, although there are other types of letter, such as discharge and transfer letter, that may possibly appear. In each case, the letter is required to be written in a formal tone and to convey information and ideas appropriately.
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Formal letter writing in English, as with most types of formal writing, makes use of the passive voice. As you would expect, OET letter writing is no different. You will be expected to make some use of this form during your exam, and thus being able to use the passive voice appropriately will be a significant help to you.
1. What is the passive voice?
To put it simply, voice refers to the relationship between subject and verb. In English, we most commonly use the active voice. This is a very simple and straightforward way of expressing an idea, and it is what you were probably taught when you first learned English in school.
An example of an active voice sentence is this:
- The dog chased the cat.
In this sentence, you can see that the dog is the subject and it is doing the verb. The cat is the object, and the verb is being done to it.
In a passive voice sentence, the roles are reversed. What would normally be the object becomes the subject, and thus the subject is having the verb done to it:
- The cat is being chased (by the dog).
Now the cat is the subject, yet the verb (to chase) is what’s happening to it. We may or may not use the original subject (the dog) in a passive voice sentence. If we do, it will appear after the verb and be introduced by the preposition “by”.
It can be summarized like this:
|The subject does the verb||The verb is done to the subject|
|“The nurse gave Panadol to the patient.”||“Panadol was given to the patient.”|
2. Why do we use passive voice?
There are essentially two reasons why we should use the passive voice:
- When the recipient of the verb is more important than the one doing it.
- When we don’t know, don’t want to say, or don’t need to say who is doing the verb.
In the first case, we often talk about the receiver of a verb when it is of particular importance. For example, a famous painting or novel. You might say:
- The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- The Last Supper was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.
In each case, the work that was created is more important than the person who created it. Of course, if you wanted to put the emphasis on the creator, you could reverse the sentences to produce the active voice:
- F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby.
- Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper.
The second case is often used with crimes. Perhaps we don’t know who committed a crime. In that case, you might say:
- The vase was stolen last night.
Who stole the vase? Well, we don’t know yet.
Likewise, we don’t need to say who arrested the criminals because the only people who ever arrest anyone are the police:
- The criminals were finally arrested.
3. Passive voice for an OET Formal Letter
As you have seen, the passive voice can make writing sound more formal, and thus it is suitable for use in essays and things like a formal letter in English. For that reason, it is very useful for candidates wishing to write an OET formal letter.
But what about the uses above? I have demonstrated some situations when the passive voice is used in English, but do they really apply to OET?
- I have informed the patient of the results.
In this case, the person writing the letter has put himself first by using the first person pronoun and making himself the subject of the sentence. In this situation, it would be more appropriate to turn the sentence order around and place the patient first. This shows that the patient is the most important person, and also uses a more formal style of writing. It can be done like this:
- The patient has been informed of the results.
Note that there is no longer a mention of the writer. When a personal pronoun is used in this way, it is best to avoid placing it later in the sentence unless it is essential to establishing the meaning. Besides, personal pronouns can reduce the formality of the letter, and so they can often be omitted.
- I dressed the patient’s wound
- The patient’s wound was dressed by me.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine that you and your team have performed a procedure. Naturally, in the active voice you would say “we”:
- We performed a pelvic exam on the patient.
In this case, you could ask whether it was really you and the team who were so important. For the purpose of your referral letter, the pelvic exam is probably the most important thing, and so we should move it to the beginning of the sentence:
- A pelvic exam was performed on the patient.
As you can see, once again the original subject (we) has now been omitted because it is no longer necessary.
You should also consider writing ‘medication’ using the passive voice. Let’s have a look:
- We administered aspirin to the patient in order to relieve pain.
- Aspirin was administered (in order) to relieve pain.
By now, you must have understood that the passive voice for referral letters mainly cover patient, treatment and medication. So, from now on, whenever you want to write a passive voice sentence identify whether your object is patient, treatment or medication. All the best!