When we first learn to speak English, even though we don’t know it, we are learning the active voice. This is the simplest and most straightforward way of speaking. Even the most basic sentences in the English language are written in the active voice.
By active voice, I mean subject + verb (+object). Look at the following sentence:
|The doctor||is reading.|
In this type of sentence, there is only a subject and a verb. There may be multiple subjects and multiple verbs, but the subject is clearly doing the verb. In the above sentence, it is the doctor who is reading. There is no doubt about it, and therefore it is a straightforward way of expressing an idea.
|The doctor||is reading||a letter.|
Again, the doctor is doing the verb (reading) to the object, which we have added in order to provide more information. The object is the recipient of this action. The meaning is clear and simple, and everything appears in a logical order.
Using the Passive Voice
Sometimes, though, we want to use the passive voice instead. This confuses people a little because it is less common and it is not always clear when we should use it. However, it basically has two uses:
1. When we don’t know (or don’t want to say) who does the action.
2. When we want to place emphasis upon the receiver of the action.
The first of those also contains a sub-category of reasons why we might want to use the passive voice, which is that we can leave out the subject of the sentence, thereby avoiding repetition. This is useful in a writing passage where a person or thing is being talked about a lot. In English, people hate to hear the same word over and over again, and we have devised various ways to reduce repetition.
In the OET writing test, you will be required to write a letter of some kind, and you should incorporate the passive voice for the above reasons. I will explain them with specific reference to OET writing in the next paragraphs:
Firstly, sometimes it is not necessary to say who did an action, and sometimes we do not specifically know. In these cases we can use the passive voice to avoid using a vague phrase like “Someone + verb”. If the hospital staff have admitted a patient into the intensive care unit, it is not really necessary to say that they did, and we might not know exactly who did it. In this case we might say something like:
|The patient||was admitted||to the intensive care unit.|
|Subject||Verb||Object (of preposition)|
It is not necessary to add who admitted them, particularly if it is a part of standard procedure, or else those people have been previously mentioned in the text.
The second example was about placing emphasis on the recipient of the action. Of course, in medicine this is typically going to refer to the patient, and as it is important to put patients’ welfare first, they may also come first in a sentence. This shows politeness and consideration.
Look at the following example:
|Mrs. Perkins’ leg||was bandaged||by the attending nurse.|
In this case, we have put “Mrs. Perkins” and her leg first in the sentence to give them importance over the nurse. This is respectful, and it also shows that her broken leg is the most important part of the sentence.
A Final Note About Passive Voice
While there are obviously many ways to use the passive voice in an OET writing sub-test, it should be noted that the passive voice cannot always be used. Obviously, the passive voice can make a sentence slightly less logical and straightforward, and thus it may create unnecessary complication in the text. In this case, it is better to stick with the active voice to make the meaning of the sentence clearer.
Additionally, the passive voice cannot be used with intransitive verbs. This means a kind of verb that cannot take an object as its complement. For example, the verb “to occur” is intransitive and cannot take an object. Therefore, we cannot make a passive voice sentence out of the following:
• An accident occurred shortly before 6pm.
• The patient presented complaining of pain in the left leg.
• He came to the clinic for a regular check-up.
In such cases, it is best to continue using the active voice rather than risk creating a grammatically incorrect or overly-confusing sentence.