To put it simply, register means how formal or informal your language is. For the academic IELTS exam, you should aim to write in a formal style, although it is still acceptable to speak somewhat informally during the speaking exam. In this article, we will examine what makes writing formal.
Note that writing doesn’t need to be passive, but that formal writing contains more passive voice use than informal writing, and so it has been grouped here under register.
What is Voice?
Voice refers to the relationship between subject and verb. In other words, is the subject doing the verb or is the verb being done to the subject? Fortunately, there are only two voices you need to remember: active and passive.
|The subject does the verb||The verb is done to the subject|
|“John kicked the ball.”||“The ball was kicked by John.”|
The active voice is far more common than the passive voice. This is because it provides a simpler relationship between the different parts of a sentence. It is more logical and propels the reader through the sentence usually in a clear order.
- The cat ate the mouse.
Here, the subject (“the cat”) does the verb (“ate”) to an object (“the mouse”). However, the order can be inverted, resulting in the passive voice.
- The mouse was eaten by the cat.
In this case, the mouse is no longer the object of the sentence; it is the subject. However, the poor little mouse is still the recipient of the verb. It is still being eaten by the cat.
In passive voice sentences, the verb is done to the subject of the sentence, as we just saw with the poor mouse. Let’s look at some more examples:
- Active: The poacher shot the tiger.
- Passive: The tiger was shot by the poacher.
- Active: The printer ate my paper.
- Passive: My paper was eaten by the printer.
To form the passive, we simply take the object of the verb and turn it into a subject. In other words, the sentence is flipped backward. But not all sentences can be made into the passive. Intransitive verbs, for example, cannot be made passive. There are also some small changes that need to be made:
Let’s take a simple, active sentence as an example:
- Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.
To make this into a passive sentence, we must put the Mona Lisa first and da Vinci last. However, this would give us the following sentence:
- The Mona Lisa painted Leonardo da Vinci
Did the Mona Lisa actually paint da Vinci? No… of course not! So we need a little more adjustment. First, we must add a form of the verb “to be” and change the main verb into the past participle. (In this case, it is already in its past participle form.)
- The Mona Lisa was painted Leonardo da Vinci. [Incorrect]
Finally, we add “by” before the person who actually did the action.
- The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci. [Correct]
Make sure you are familiar with the various forms of “to be” and change the tense accordingly:
|Tense||Active Voice||Passive Voice|
|Present Simple||Frank bakes the cake.||The cake is baked by Frank.|
|Past Simple||Frank baked the cake.||The cake was baked by Frank|
|Present Continuous||Frank is baking the cake.||The cake is being baked by Frank.|
|Present Perfect||Frank has baked the cake.||The cake has been baked by Frank.|
|Future (going to)||Frank is going to bake the cake.||The cake is going to be baked by Frank.|
|Future (will)||Frank will bake the cake.||The cake will be baked by Frank.|
|Past Continuous||Frank was baking the cake||The cake was being baked by Frank.|
|Past Perfect||Frank had baked the cake.||The cake had been baked by Frank.|
|Future Perfect||Frank will have baked the cake.||The cake will have been baked by Frank.|
When and why do we use the passive?
There are only two instances when we would use the passive voice:
- When the receiver of the action is more important the do-er.
- When we don’t know or don’t say who performed the action.
Let’s look at these uses:
The above case is a very common use of the passive voice. We often talk about great works of art or inventions using the passive because sometimes it is more important, or more interesting, than the artist. Here are some examples:
- On the Road was written by Jack Kerouac.
- Lord of the Rings was directed by Peter Jackson.
- The lightbulb was invented by Thomas Edison.
Of course, we could use any of those sentences in the active voice; however, sometimes it is the creation that is more relevant. In that case, you would use the passive voice.
We also use the passive voice when we don’t know, or don’t need to say, who did the verb.
- The woman was murdered last night. (By whom? We don’t know.)
- They were arrested after the match. (By whom? The police, of course.)
Passive voice for IELTS
So… when exactly should we use the passive voice in IELTS?
As we saw above, we often use the passive voice when talking about famous creations like books, movies, and so on. So you might be able to use the passive in the speaking test when asked about these things. Here are some examples:
- My favourite book is The Catcher in the Rye. It was written by JD Salinger.
- I like rock music. One of my favourite songs is “Sweet Child of Mine,” which was sung by Guns ‘n’ Roses.
However, mostly you will be using the active voice. Remember that the passive voice is quite formal, and not all words can be used in this voice. For example, you cannot use intransitive verbs with the passive. Other times, the passive just makes a sentence confusing and awkward. Look at this example of bad passive use:
Paris was visited by me last year. The Eiffel Tower was seen by my family. The food there was really enjoyed by us.
You can use the passive voice in the IELTS writing exam. It’s much less common in task 2; however, you will rely heavily upon it for task 1 if you need to describe a process.
- Water is heated to 100 degrees.
- The liquid is extracted from the mix.
- Stones are put into the box.
- Sand is removed from the pipe.
- The payment is received by the merchant.
In task 2, the passive voice can help make a text more formal. It is not used in every sentence, but some careful use can increase the quality of the writing:
- hosting a major sporting event can be a huge expense for a city, but it does yield significant rewards. In the future, the city may be visited by more tourists, allowing the city government to recoup their expenses during and after the event. Furthermore, if the city’s profile is raised significantly, the long-term benefits may include increased tourism and international investment.
Here, two passive voice sentences have been used. In the first instance, the focus is placed upon the city rather than the tourists, and in the second we don’t need to mention who or what is doing the raising. This shows that the city is the focus, which helps keep our writing on-topic, and also sounds better than using a more basic active voice sentences. Finally, by mixing sentence types, we avoid repetition.
The active voice is far more common than the passive voice in English, and therefore you should use it more in the IELTS exam. However, sometimes the passive voice is more appropriate. You should learn the passive so that you can better understand listening and reading passages, but also know when and how to use it yourself. There are times in the speaking and writing exams when you could use the passive voice. The most important is task 1 when you need to describe a process.
Participle clauses are a kind of adverbial clause in that they give extra information (such as reasons, time, conditions, or results) to a sentence. I will include them here, rather than in the previous “clauses” section of the book because they are often used in formal writing. As such, they make a very useful addition to an IELTS essay.
What is a Participle Clause?
Put simply, a participle clause normally appears at the beginning of a sentence, using the present or past participle, but taking its subject in the following clause. The information in this clause must relate directly and obviously to the subject in the main clause.
- Started in 1979, China’s One Child Policy was aimed at reducing the rate of population growth.
As you will notice, there is no subject in the first clause. However, the subject appears at the beginning of the following clause – “China’s One Child Policy.” This could have been rewritten:
- China’s One Child Policy started in 1979. It was aimed at reducing the rate of population growth.
Thus, the participle clause has helped us combine two simple sentences into one complex sentence, while increasing the degree of formality in our writing. This is the main reason for using a participle clause.
How to Form a Participle Clause
A participle clause will begin with a present or past participle:
- Unwilling to move to the cities, many old people are left in the countryside with little financial support.
- Angered by the recent changes, many voters are turning against the president.
You can see that in these examples, the participles (“unwilling”= present participle; “angered”= past participle) refer directly to the subjects. Many old people are unwilling to move to the cities and many voters were angered by the recent changes.
Let’s look now at some applicable IELTS writing task 2 examples.
- Many criminals commit crimes shortly after being released from prison.
- What are the causes of this problem?
- What are some solutions?
To this question, we have the opportunity to use participle clauses in many ways. Here are some examples:
- Unable to find a job, the former prisoners return to a life of crime.
- Finding life on the outside difficult, these people turn to an easy opportunity for money.
- Presented with few options, prisoners sometimes look to petty crime to survive.
- Shunned by society, ex-prisoners struggle to make a living.
- Knowing that they have to work harder than most people to get a job, some of these men turn back to a life of crime in order to get an income.
Note that in the final example I said “knowing.” The verb “know” is considered non-continuous and so we seldom use it with an “-ing” ending. However, with participle clauses you can add “-ing” to non-continuous verbs:
- Being unable to provide for their families, many recently released prisoners feel a sense of shame.
- Believing that they are unlikely to succeed any other way, some prisoners look to a life of crime as their only option.
Participle clauses are useful because they express information economically; however, the relationship between the parts of the sentence must be clear or else it can become confusing. Make sure that the first word in the sentence refers to the subject in the main clause or else you would end up with a dangling participle:
- Causing a great deal of pollution, people often use cars to drive to work.
- Causing a great deal of pollution, cars are still the main choice for people getting to work.
- People often use cars to drive to work, although they cause a lot of pollution.
You should also avoid over-using participle clauses as this may sound unnatural and archaic.You may also like:
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