The Passive Voice & the use of the Double Negative

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The Passive Voice & the use of the Double Negative

The passive voice is most popular with writers and speakers in the Anglo-Saxon world. It is rarely used in Latin countries. It is formed by inverting the subject and the object of a sentence, + the use of the verb TO BE + the past participle of the action verb.

Remember that every verb has its PAST and its PRESENT Participle:-

To teach = taught, teaching

To run    = ran, running

To defraud = defrauded, defrauding

To make = made, making

To deny  = denied, denying



A normal sentence could say, for instance:- Violet teaches English  (Active Voice in the present). But in the passive voice :- English is taught by Violet.


In the past tense :- English was taught by Violet.


More examples:

The English defeated the French at Waterloo (active voice in the past)

The French were defeated by the English at Waterloo

Charles II of England fathered seventeen bastards

Seventeen bastards were fathered by Charles II of England


Why is the Passive Voice used? (Why use the Passive voice?)

It is used primarily to soften the hardness or directness of a sentence, and this is effective, but too much use of the Passive Voice can be irritating or even confusing. But it DOES mean that the sentences can be shorter. Here we cut out the phrase ‘than their parents’


“They say that teachers handle the bringing-up of children better than their parents,”


“It is said that the bringing-up of children is better handled by teachers”


The use, or over-use of the Double Negative

The double negative does not exist in the Latin languages. If you say in Spanish for example – “No sé nada de esto” it means you know nothing of it, but in English this is rendered as “I don’t know nothing about this,” which is simply very bad English. Nevertheless, overuse of the double negative must be avoided, unless the writer is intentionally being funny:-

Perhaps it wouldn’t be unfitting if I said something? And it is not an uninteresting point. I do not know many people who couldn’t express doubt about the strategies that the authorities adopt in situations not a million miles dissimilar to this one, and I not think this is something we shouldn’t be unafraid to ignore. In fact I don’t think we should be unafraid not to discuss it!”

    This piece, translated from Mr. Stephen Fry’s magnificently funny dialogue, simply says:-

“Perhaps it would be fitting to say something? It is an interesting point. Most people think the strategies adopted by the authorities are the same as this one. We should not ignore it. We should discuss it.”  But this form is not appropriate to Fry’s character, who is a Professor of Classical Languages who always speaks in double negatives.

By | 2013-01-11T17:16:29+00:00 January 11th, 2013|English Language, Today|2 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Tom holloway January 13, 2013 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    Mr. Swift clearly does not know nothing about Latn languages. Passive constructions are VERY frequent in Spanish and Portuguese, often without the subject being identified, as in “the bowl was broken,” or “the war has been won.” Who broke the bowl or won the war is often clear by the context, but can be lost in translation unless the translator rewrites in the active voice.

    • Dean Swift February 3, 2013 at 6:01 pm - Reply

      Why the first offensive sentence? The rest of your comment is gentlemanly and educational. Why say, ungrammatically by the way – ‘Mr Swift clearly does not know nothing (sic) about Latin languages’? It is this kind of rough, unseemly and aggressive use of the computer that is spoiling the world.

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