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A Refresher on the Passive Voice
by Tanju Deveci

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Things to be careful with

What makes the Passive Voice is the irregularities that surround it. First of all, it is important to note that although most tenses can have their passive forms, future progressive passives and perfect progressive passives are unusual.

In addition, Swan (2005) warns that some verbs are not used in passive. Passive structures are impossible with intransitive verbs like 'die' or 'arrive', which can't have objects, because there is nothing to become the subject of a passive sentence. Also, some transitive verbs are seldom used in the passive. Most of these are 'stative verbs'. Examples are 'fit', 'have', 'lack', 'resemble' and 'suit'.

Moreover, some prepositional verbs are mainly used in the active. For example;

Everybody agreed with me, but not I was agreed with everybody.

There are no clear rules about this, and students have to learn by experience which verbs cannot be used in the passive. However, Eckersley and Eckersley (1985) point out that certain intransitive verbs can be made into transitive by the addition of a preposition, and these verbs can be used in the Passive Voice, as in the following example.

His plan was laughed at by everyone.

P.V. would not be possible for some transitive verbs; for example:

I have a book would not be used passively as A book is had by me.

Reflexive verbs also have to be mentioned. There is a reflexive verb when the person or thing doing the action is also the 'victim' of the action. For instance 'He' in He cut himself. both the subject of the action, and the object of it. In such occasions, passive is not possible.

Thomson and Martinet (2011) say that 'get' is sometimes used instead of 'be', and with 'be' passives, the agent can be specified in an optional by phrase. Jacobs (2007) states that not using a 'by phrase' makes it easy to confuse 'get' passives with uses of 'get' before a past participle or an adjective. In the following example, 'get' occurs before adjectives and means "become":

Leslie got angry at the officer.

Jacobs (2007) warns that the problem for learners increases when we look at constructions like the following:

Kermit got confused by his explanation.

In the above example, the 'by phrase' looks very much like an agent phrase in a passive.

Potential learner mistakes

One area which can cause students difficulties is the use of pseudo-passive sentences. Jacobs (2007) mentions that such sentences look at first glance somewhat like passives but actually have predicate adjectives instead of the past participles of verbs. Compare the following two sentences.

The door was opened. vs The door was open.

The first sentence is simply a passive clause without a 'by phrase'. The second is not a passive clause. The speaker is simply making an assertion about the state of the door. These kind of sentences may confuse the learners.

Learners can also be confused by adjectives ending in 'ed' and 'ing'. Some mistakes I commonly hear is: says typical mistakes are:

I was boring in the lesson.

Lewis (1986) says that sometimes, although the doer is unknown, both an active and a passive sentence, with the same referential meaning are possible:

My camera has been stolen.

Somebody has stolen my camera.

In this case, in order to produce an active sentence an artificial or dummy subject is introduced 'somebody'. So giving rules like 'when the doer is unknown we use the Passive Voice' could confuse students.

Thomson and Martinet (2011) point out that 'get' is sometimes used instead of 'be', and with 'be' passives, the agent can be specified in an optional by phrase. Jacobs (2007) notes that not using a 'by phrase' makes it easy to confuse 'get' passives with uses of 'get' before a past participle or an adjective. In the following example, 'get' occurs before adjectives and means "become":

Leslie got angry at the officer.

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