Apr 20

Quirks of the passive voice

Grammar quirks

Things you didn't know about the passive

Inspired by an IATEFL talk from Jonathan Marks- a few things you may not have considered about the passive voice. Here is Jonathan's blog post for some further reading.


I seem to be paying homage to quite a few ELT legends at the moment and this little video is to another one. Jonathan Marks is a real linguist- I came across his work originally through his writing – this book is my favourite Book of Pronunciation (Delta Publishing) but he also often gives talks at the annual IATEFL conference and they’re always really well researched and fascinating if you’re interested in language. This video is based on one of those talks – given in 2019. I loved it so I thought I’d try to give you the flavour of it.

I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training.com and this is another in my Grammar Quirk series, this time looking at the passive voice. If you want to check out the whole series, it’s available on my site – completely free!

I was interested in Jonathan’s talk because the passive voice is something that I often see taught badly. This is mainly because there’s a really strong emphasis on the form, but not much on the meaning and learners go away with the impression that the active and the passive are just two different ways of saying the same thing.

Passive – the form
So the form goes like this…

The active voice:
The dog bit the man -the subject – the dog doing the biting – comes first, then we have the conjugated verb in the past simple in this case and then the object – the unfortunate man who received the action.

And the passive voice:
The man was bitten (by the dog)
– the object becomes the grammatical subject, we then have the auxiliary verb BE (or GET) acting as a tense marker (so it’s in the simple past here) and the main lexical verb in its past participle form. We can also add the doer of the action, the agent, in there with a ‘by’ if we choose to do so.

So what I often see in classes is an explanation of this grammar ballet followed by controlled practice exercises where learners have to change active sentences into passive ones, with the implication that the meaning is the same – but it isn’t!

This is usually as far as the passive goes in a class, but this is where Jonathan’s talk started from and went on to look at all sorts of quirks of this form… I can’t tell you about all of them here, but here are a few that caught my attention…

Short and long passives
Passives can be short (without the inclusion of the agent) or long (including it with by) as we’ve seen. What’s interesting though, is that we often say that the passive is used when we don’t know or don’t care about the agent or when the agent is obvious. We can see this in these examples of short passives:

It was built in 2019 – we don’t know who built it or really care He was arrested last night - only the police arrest people – it’s obvious

So the short passive is used to draw attention away from subject – fair enough. But what about the long passive:

It was built by John/ it was painted by Monet - These long passives actually have the opposite effect, they don’t assume the subject at all – they draw attention to it – they MAKE us notice it more.

The use of the long passive can be about weight management in the sentence, too. Long noun phrases are quite difficult to process when they’re at the beginning of a sentence but if we use the passive, that long noun phrase sits after the verb so the cognitive load is easier. Look at this:

The man furthest away from me in the queue, wearing a red mac and black, shiny shoes, holding a walking cane and a briefcase stared at me.

This is hard to process because we’re waiting for the verb and trying to keep the whole subject noun phrase in mind. It’s much easier to envisage:

I was stared at by the man furthest away from me in the queue, wearing a red mac and black, shiny shoes, holding a walking cane and a briefcase.

Passive voice or adjective?
Another quirk? How about past participles in the passive and adjectives.

The vase was broken – it’s fairly clear that this sentence describes the state of the vase, so ‘broken’ is an adjective, but how about

The vase was broken by the boy dropping it. Now, there’s definitely an action going on and this is a passive verb form.

This isn’t at all uncommon – do you think the participles in these sentences are adjectives or verbs?

The wolf was trapped by the hunters
She was interested in him
They got so irritated that they left

A good test here is whether you can add ‘very’ in front of the participle – if you can it’s an adjective. Go back and try it on those examples we’ve just looked at.

Not mentioning the subject!
As I mentioned before, the passive is often used to avoid mentioning the subject, but there are other ways that we can do this of course. Something that’s often taught in class is the causative have/ get:
You’ve had your hair cut/ I get my windows cleaned every month etc

But how about non- specific subjects

They should do something about … who ARE ‘they’?
You can .... – although this sounds rather directed at the person you’re speaking to, it refers to a much more general possibility – not YOU but anyone can…
One .... as a pronoun, this has dwindled to near extinction, I’d say, but I still hear it occasionally

These things aren’t covered in coursebooks very often but they’re useful bits of language, maybe particularly ‘they’ and ‘you’ for non specific subjects.

Ergative verbs
Another interesting quirk when not mentioning the subject is the use of ergative verbs – What’s an ergative verb, I hear you ask. I thought you’d like that! It’s a verb that can be transitive and intransitive (OK) .. but – here’s the trick - where the subject of the intransitive verb is the same as the object of the transitive verb. Let me show you…

'open' is an ergative verb because you can say
She opened the door – ‘the door’ is the object here - but you can also say The door opened - now ‘the door is the subject’ – but the verb form is the same…

So, both of these sentences are in the active voice but the agent isn’t at all clear in the second one – who did it?

Broke’ is another good example. Which of these do you think you’d be most likely to say?
One of your wineglasses broke when I was washing up, or
I broke one of your wineglasses when I was washing up.

Conversion active passive problems
One final thought for you on the subject – practice activities for the passive often revolve around converting active to passive voice and back again – She painted the room/ the room was painted.

Now we know that not all active sentences do this. What happens with this sentence:
The minister for Education resigned. Hmm – it’s intransitive – no object, so we can’t make it passive. This is pretty standard stuff.

But what about passive sentences that aren’t usually converted back the other way?
I was born – have you EVER heard anyone saying that their mother bore them?
They got married – not usually that the celebrant married them…

And in one or two cases, converting between the two forms really does affect the meaning. How about this?

Smokers must occupy rear seats - So, if you’re a smoker, you have no choice – it’s the back seats for you

But in the passive

Rear seats must be occupied by smokers - Now it sounds as if the bus won’t leave until all of those back seats are full of people smoking.

OK. That’s about it for today. I hope that’s tickled your linguistic fancy and that you enjoyed it. If you want more detail in Jonathan’s own words, you can find the links to a couple of blog posts he’s written on the subject just below.

Thanks for watching – bye.

Created with