The passive in English

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Numerous Language Log posts by me, Mark Liberman, and Arnold Zwicky among others have been devoted to mocking people who denigrate the passive without being able to identify it (see this comprehensive list of Language Log posts about the passive). It is clear that some people think The bus blew up is in the passive; that The case took on racial overtones is in the passive; that Dr. Reuben deeply regrets that this happened is in the passive; and so on.

Our grumbling about how these people don't know their passive from a hole in the ground has inspired many people to send us email asking for a clear and simple explanation of what a passive clause is. In this post I respond to those many requests. I'll make it as clear and simple as I can, but it will be a 2500-word essay; I can't make things simpler than they are. There is no hope of figuring out the meaning of grammatical terms from common sense, or by looking in a dictionary. Passive (like its opposite, active) is a technical term. Its use in syntax has nothing to do with lacking energy or initiative, or assuming a receptive and non-directive role. And the dictionary definitions are often utterly inadequate (Webster's, for example, is simply hopeless on the grammatical sense of the word). I will try to explain things accurately, and also simply (though this is not for kids; I am writing this for grownups). If I fail, then of course the whole of your money will be refunded.

I won't be talking about passive sentences or passive verbs: sentences are too big and verbs are too small. I'll talk in terms of passive clauses. A clause consists, very roughly, of a verb plus all the appropriate things that go with that verb to complete a unit that can express a proposition, including all its optional extra modifiers. Sentences can contain numerous clauses, some passive and some not, some embedded inside others, so talking about passive sentences doesn't make any sense. Nor does "passive construction" if you define it, as Webster's does, as a type of expression "containing a passive verb form". That would be far too vague even if English had passive verb forms (in reality, it doesn't).

This essay avoids using the term voice. That's the rather strange traditional name for the distinction between active and passive. It mainly confuses people: The active/passive "voice" contrast has nothing to do with finding your voice, or having a loud voice, or the authentic voice of the oppressed.

I'll need to use three abbreviations: a noun-phrase like a storm, or storms, or the roof, or City Hall, will be referred to as an NP. A verb-phrase like blew in, or damaged the roof, will be called a VP And a preposition-phrase like with the others, or by a bear, will be called a PP.

Fasten your seatbelt; here we go. Ten short sections follow. You can ignore the footnotes at the end of section 7 without much loss.

1. English has a contrast between kinds of clause in which one kind has the standard correspondence between grammatical subject and semantic roles (when a verb denotes an action, the subject standardly corresponds to the agent), and the other switches those roles around. In the kind of clause called passive some non-subject NP you would expect within the VP is missing, and that VP is understood with that NP as its subject.

Take the verb damage as an example. Active uses of it involve a subject NP denoting a causer or initiator of damage — call that participant the wrecker. Since damage is a transitive verb, there is also a direct object NP. In this case it denotes something that suffers or undergoes damage; call that entity the victim. An active clause with the verb damage would be something like Storms damaged City Hall. Notice that the subject NP (storms) denotes the wrecker. In a passive use of damage (I won't give one just yet, but I will in a minute) you would see a form of the verb damage used in such a way that the subject of the clause does not denote the wrecker, but denotes the victim instead.

(What about the NP that denotes the wrecker, then? As we'll see, it doesn't have to be expressed at all in a passive clause. But if it is expressed, it is put into a PP inside the VP. That PP has the head preposition by. You would add by storms, for example, to make it explicit what the agent was in a passive clause using damaged.)

One more observation before we go on: given the meaning of the verb damage, we have an action that involves a doer (the wrecker) and an undergoer (the victim), but it is crucial that there isn't always a doer or an undergoer. John neglects the garden is an active clause with a transitive verb, but that doesn't mean it says that John does something, or that the garden has something done to it; the clause actually says exactly the opposite, that John does nothing to the garden!

2. Crucial to the form of passive clauses is the notion of a participle. Nearly all verbs in English (though not quite all) have two tenseless forms with special endings: the past participle, which typically ends in -ed (but for irregular verbs may end in -en or -t or have no ending or may have some yet more irregular form), and the gerund-participle, which always ends in -ing. Here are a few example forms for various verbs (I include for each verb the plain form that you would look up in the dictionary plus the 3rd singular present form ending in -s, and the preterite or simple past tense form, followed by both the participles in red):

break breaks    broke broken breaking
damage damages    damaged damaged damaging
go goes    went gone going
have has    had had having
keep keeps    kept kept keeping
nibble nibbles    nibbled nibbled nibbling
write writes    wrote written writing

Notice that for fully regular verbs like damage and nibble, and for some irregular verbs, the past participle is identical in written form and pronunciation to the preterite form.

The relevance of participles is that a passive clause always has its verb in a participial form. (In the vast majority of cases it's the past participle, but there is an exception, to be considered later, in section 7.)

3. Participles never have tense, yet virtually all kinds of English independent clauses are required to have tense. This means that a clause formed of a subject and a participial VP understood in the switched-around manner — what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls a bare passive clause — can hardly ever stand on its own. But there are a couple of exceptions. One is newspaper headlines. Here is an imaginary headline that has the form of a passive clause and nothing else:

City Hall damaged by storms

Who or what is the wrecker here, semantically? The storms. And the victim? Obviously, City Hall, which is the subject of the clause that makes up this headline. The usual roles are reversed. Normally the wrecker would be denoted by the subject NP, placed before the verb, and the victim would be denoted by the object NP, after the verb. But in the headline above they are switched.

Bare passive clauses are not only seen in headlines; one other place you see them is when they are used as modifiers. It's somewhat literary, but common enough. A couple of examples, with the bare passive clause modifier underlined:

That said, we should keep in mind that things are more complex.
The day's work done, they made their way back to the farmhouse.

4. The imaginary headline City Hall damaged by storms is not an ordinary independent clause in non-headline contexts. To make it into an ordinary independent clause, it needs a tense, either present or past. But since the verb of the passive VP has to be a participle, it can't have tense. So there has to be an extra verb.

One verb that very commonly accompanies passive VPs to make passive clauses is the item known as be. Its plain form is be, but it has many other forms for specific grammatical contexts: am, are, aren't, is, isn't, was, wasn't, were, weren't, been, being. English often makes passive VPs into tensed clauses by using some tensed form of be. The subject goes before be rather than before the participle in the passive clause, and the rest of the passive clause comes after be (it's an internal complement in the VP).

So to express in the preterite (simple past) tense the claim that storms damaged City Hall, we could employ the verb form was (that is, the simple past tense form of be is appropriate for a third-person singular subject), with City Hall as the grammatical subject, and following that the past participle damaged. To make the wrecker explicit, as I said above, we simply add the PP by storms. The result is the sentence on the right below:

Storms damaged City Hall.        City Hall was damaged by storms.

The verb was doesn't really add any meaning, but it enables the whole thing to be put into the preterite tense so that the event can be asserted to have occurred in the past. Changing was to is would put the clause into the present tense, and replacing it by will be or is going to be would permit reference to future time; but the passive VP damaged by storms would stay the same in each case. (Notice, the participle damaged does not itself make any past time reference, despite the name "past participle".)

5. Using be is not the only way to make a passive clause that says storms have damaged City Hall. It is often true that a passive clause contains be, but not always. This is why it is so disastrous that ignorant writing tutors circle all forms of be that they notice, writing "Don't use the passive" in the margin (take a look at this terrible example). They are picking up on an irrelevant feature that is only sometimes found near a passive clause. Many passives don't have be at all, and many uses of be are not associated with passives. The other verbs that sometimes accompany passive clauses include come, get, go, have, hear, make, need, see, and a few others (though there are all sorts of limitations on the constructions that different verbs require). Here are a few examples, with the main clause verb boldfaced and the passive VP underlined:

Mary got arrested at the demonstration yesterday.
Try not to get your private life discussed by the newspapers.
I saw him attacked by a flock of birds.
I had this made for me by a carpenter.
Susan had her car stolen out of her driveway last week.
The problems with the building went unnoticed by the owners for weeks.
This software comes pre-installed by the manufacturers.

All of these examples will typically go unidentified as passives if you ask bad writing tutors or trust bad grammar-checking programs. (So will the foregoing sentence.)

6. In all of the examples so far, the NP unexpressed in the VP is a direct object. Transitive verbs like arrest, discuss, attack, make, notice, install, etc., just have one NP in the VP, and it's the direct object. In a passive, it is the NP that turns up as the subject. But this is one more thing that is not always true in passives, but only sometimes.

First, the non-subject NP can be an indirect object. That's what we see here:

The School gives each graduate student a laptop.        Each graduate student is given a laptop.

Second, more interestingly, the non-subject NP can be inside a PP: it can be the complement of a preposition in the active. This is what we see in the following active/passive pair, where the active has a PP (enclosed in brackets) and in the passive version there is a stranded preposition (I put the relevant PP in square brackets, and show by ‘__’ the gap in the passive where the missing NP would have been.):

His classmates sneered [at him].        He was sneered [at __] by his classmates.

This construction is the prepositional passive (some linguists have called it the pseudo-passive). All the verbs that take passive clause complements can take prepositional passives. In the following examples the passive clause is underlined, but I don't bother to show the gap after the stranded preposition:

Mary got picked on at the demonstration yesterday.
Don't get your private life talked about by the newspapers.
I saw him pecked at by a flock of birds.
I had this worked on by a carpenter.
If you've ever had your poetry laughed at by an audience you'll know how I feel.
The problems with the building went unlooked at by the owners for a long time.

In English the prepositional passive is quite frequent, especially in relatively informal style. Most languages don't have anything like it (Norwegian is a rare example of a language that does).

There are some peculiar restrictions on prepositional passives in English. One is that there can be a difference in acceptability according to whether the subject denotes an entity that is tangibly altered in state: This bottom bunk has been slept in is dramatically more acceptable than ??The bottom bunk has been slept above, apparently because sleeping in a bunk bed alters its state (the sheets are wrinkled and so on), while sleeping in the top bunk above it doesn't alter its state at all. Intuitively, you use a prepositional passive when the VP expresses a relevantly important property of the subject. That's a restriction on prepositional passives, because there is nothing peculiar about the active version Someone has slept above this bottom bunk. (Why would a language have a restriction like that? Who knows. I don't make or try to enforce any of the rules; I am merely trying to explain what the rules seem to be.)

7. The participle in a passive clause is nearly always a past participle, but not quite always: most dialects of English have a construction called the concealed passive in which the verb of the passive clause is in the gerund-participle form, the one that ends in -ing. Most commonly a concealed passive clause involves the verb need, as in these examples:

It needed washing anyway.
That rash needs looking at by a specialist.

In these examples washing and looking are gerund-participles, but the sense is still clearly the one that indicates the passive — the subject of wash does not denote the person who does the washing, and the subject of look does not denote the specialist.

Four footnotes:
Note 1. For some speakers there are a few verbs other than need that allow this construction. Want may allow it, for example.
Note 2. There are people (some of them Americans) who say It needs washed; I think that is accounted for by simply saying that they allow need to take a subjectless passive clause complement just like get does.
Note 3. In the 18th century there was another passive-like construction with a gerund-participle: the so-called passival, as in His tooth was pulling out by a dentist, where a gerund-participle is the complement of be. That is another matter, and a purely historical one; but see this post for recent Language Log discussion of the passival.
Note 4. I am not dealing here with the case of those few transitive verbs that are sometimes used intransitively with the subject understood the way the object would have been understood: cases like His books sell quite well, which means something like "The enterprise of selling his books goes quite well" (notice that sell is not a participle). This construction is sometimes called the middle. It clearly differs from the passive: it can't take a by-phrase.

8. You can of course leave out all reference to the agent in a passive, precisely because the agent isn't the subject, and only the subject is fully and always obligatory in a tensed clause:

The mayor had the building torn down.

That doesn't express the identity of the destructive agent at all — though in this case the source of the authority is clear enough, so there's no evasiveness about responsibility. The context might be one in which we don't know which company did it, and any company could have, and it doesn't matter which one it was. But you don't have to leave the agent unexpressed in a passive. You could say this:

The mayor had the building torn down by his brother's demolition company.

The demolition agent is specified here, as you might want it to be if corrupt awarding of city contracts was suspected. So notice that the passive construction has absolutely nothing to do with the notion of being vague about agency: you can be as explicit as you want to be about who or what did the stuff that the clause talks about, and whether you use a by-phrase may not even matter. The passive is often better suited to being explicit about agency than the active is, because the end of the verb phrase is an ideal place to put something you want to emphasize:

Don't you see? The patient was murdered by his own doctor!.

There's no vagueness or evasiveness about whodunnit there: it whacks you in the face with the identity of the murderer. If you want to name names and point fingers, there's often no better way to do it than with a passive construction.

Let me now add a reminder about a point made earlier: we have been talking about actions like damaging, tearing down, murdering, and so on. These denote actions affecting physical objects. Not all verbs are like this. J is followed by K is a passive clause, but it doesn't talk about anybody doing anything to anything. It just has a passice VP with a past participle, and its subject is understood the way the object would be understood in the earlier example K follows J. Key point: The passive construction is not defined in terms of active agents doing things to affected entities! After all, sometimes nothing is doing anything to anything: consider It is believed to have been snowing at the time, where believed is the verb of a passive clause but it isn't by any stretch of the imagination a thing that someone believes. The passive is defined in terms of syntactic notions like subject and object and transitive verb and participle.

9. I still have not done full justice to this topic; in particular, I have not opened up the topic of the close relation between passives and predicative adjective constructions (phrases like uninhabited are rather clearly adjectival, since there is no verb *uninhabit, yet we can say Antarctica is mostly uninhabited by humans). But although I have not been fully exhaustive, I hope I have made it clear that almost everything said about passives in standard books of writing advice (and most of what linguistics books say as well) is mistaken. Indeed, often wildly mistaken.

  • The passive is not an undesirable feature limited to bad writing; it's a useful construction often needed for clear expression, and every good writer uses it.
  • The passive does not always involve a use of be.
  • The passive does not always involve masking the identity of the agent—it can be used to put the spotlight on the agent.
  • The NP that is the subject in a passive is not always the one that would have been the direct object if the clause had been designed as an active one: it can be an NP that would have been the complement of a preposition, so some passive clauses have stranded prepositions.

10. One other thing. As mentioned on Language Log here and elsewhere, the people who criticize the passive the most tend to use it more than the rest of us. George Orwell warns against the passive in his dishonest and rhetorically overblown essay "Politics and the English language". E. B. White does likewise in the obnoxiously ignorant little book by Strunk that he revised and put his name on, The Elements of Style. Both of these authors have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: more than 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.

I modified this post a bit on 4 June 2012, and again on 15 September 2012, and again on 10 July 2014. I have tried to make it very clear that the passive is not defined in terms of semantic notions like doer and undergoer, even though that makes for a vivid source of initial examples. Comments on this post are closed, but comments and questions can be emailed to me at mail2languagelog
. All mail will be read, and ideas or suggestions may perhaps be taken up (in fact many have: thanks to all the readers who contributed suggestions for minor changes that I have made to the post above). A personal response, however, cannot be promised: I have no staff, and my Language Log time is limited.


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