Although the active voice is predominant in the English language the ‘ideal’ proportion of recommended passive sentences is still regarded as between 5% and 10%(source1) ( source2). Which is substantially more than in languages like Spanish and, though I couldn't find numerical data to compare the percentage use of the passive voice, experience of writing in Spanish and memories of Spanish teachers accustomed to bilingual students warning about overusing the passive voice "like in English", as well as these language learning sites expressing that the passive is not as common in Spanish, Italian and German as it is in English, provide me with some confirmation.

As such, what intrinsic difference does English have that would allow more sentences to make sense in the passive voice than the languages mentioned above? Sources would be appreciated.

P.S. It's still gramatically correct in all the languages mentioned above to use the pasive voice to whatever degree, but many more sentences in this voice would be discouraged as they'd simply not make much sense or be very hard to understand (particullarly in conversations).

Disclaimer: Perhaps other European languages use the passive more often, but even so, why is this the case, I'm particularly interested in comparing English to Spanish or Italian or German.

  • 3
    I actually thought it was more common in German.
    – MWB
    Aug 17, 2019 at 23:21
  • 12
    We've been through this already. First, many languages have no passive voice. Second, many languages have several constructions called "passive", or used like passives. Third, English passives are not more common than passives in other languages; your sources are incorrect. Fourth, there is no the ‘ideal’ proportion of passive to active in any language; certainly not English. So, the question gets no answer. Again.
    – jlawler
    Aug 17, 2019 at 23:31
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    What evidence do you have for any of this? And there is absolutely no such thing as an "ideal proportion of passive sentences".
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 18, 2019 at 2:48
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    @curiousdannii "And there is absolutely no such thing as an "ideal proportion of passive sentences"" Descriptively true, but prescriptivism is still rampant. I wouldn't be surprised if various style guides prescribed a specific percentage of sentences to make passive for Correct English™.
    – Draconis
    Aug 18, 2019 at 5:11
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    @Keelan: As I noted, there isn't any universal "Passive" whose properties can be compared from language to language. Many languages don't even have subjects, let alone passives. The belief that there is such a universal passive, with known properties, is a matter of opinion, not fact., just as much as the beliefs that some of these should be "discouraged", or that there is an "ideal proportion" of them. All of these ideas are nonsense.
    – jlawler
    Aug 18, 2019 at 17:01

3 Answers 3


I am not sure whether your initial assumption is statistically correct, but let us take it as a working hypothesis. French and German (to mention only these) very commonly use "on" and "man" with an active verb where English prefers a passive construction. Thus: "on dit" = "man sagt" = "it is said". Of course you can also say "one says", but this is less common, or in any case less colloquial.

  • 4
    That's what they say.
    – Rosie F
    Aug 19, 2019 at 14:27
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    But in Spanish, one finds a reflexive middle-voice construction: "Se dice". Aug 19, 2019 at 19:36
  • combine Spanish+German and you get approximately "some say". Coincidence? I think not!
    – vectory
    Aug 15, 2020 at 12:08

It is a matter of linguistic pragmatics. A typical statement has a topic, also known as theme or given (what is being talked about) and a comment or rheme (the new information about the topic). In 1843 Weil noticed the tendency of actual language used to reflect a topic - comment word order (what he called 'the march of ideas'); this is especially true when a new topic is being introduced. However the actual spoken sentence is restricted to the words, syntax and grammar available to the speaker.

If the speaker wishes to make a statement in which the topic is the object of the verb, in languages which can distinguish subject and object morphologically (for example German) it is relatively simple to move the object to the first position as topic.

In English this can only be done by making the sentence passive. English can also make an indirect object that is the topic the subject of a passive sentence ('Somebody gave John a book' becomes 'John was given a book'). When the topic is a prepositional object English even allows intransitive verbs such as 'to leak' to be used transitively allowing the prepositional object to be the subject, although the resultant statement isn't passive ('water is leaking from the old pipe' becomes 'the old pipe is leaking water').

This explains the greater use of passive constructions in English when compared to some other languages.

Fischer, de Smet and van der Wurff, "A Brief History of English Syntax (Cambridge: CUP, 2017)pp 207 to 211 includes a discussion on this.

  • Passives are not the only way to do this in English; you can also use cleft constructions: It was John to whom someone gave a book, or it is the old pipe that water is leaking from Dec 13, 2022 at 14:45
  • Yes - but only if you wish to create 'focus' (that is to highlight the comment) in your statement in which case in English a cleft sentence is used and the comment fronted. There are other mechanisms for English speakers to do this in other situations.
    – Ned
    Dec 15, 2022 at 11:03

Frequent use of the passive in English is not a breach of any "recommended" proportion. Rather, it is a function of register, i.e. it depends on the formality of the situation and the education of the speaker/writer. Some examples:

Written English uses more passives than spoken English.

In many scientific disciplines, students are told very early on to report data in the passive, in the hope of achieving clarity and objectivity. This approach often results in scientific journals whose text is >80% passive.

Educated speakers in all languages like to show how educated they are. In Chinese, this means dropping in classical phrases and references. In English, this means using recondite vocabulary (often Latinate) and complex syntax (often passive or inverted).

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