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    The Passive in English Grammar

    The Passive in English Grammar

    Passives are words that express the passive voice. Passives function within verb phrases functioning as predicates. Only one grammatical form can perform the function of passive in English. The one grammatical form that can function as the passive is the verb. Only the verb be, sometimes referred to as the passive be, can function as a passive in the most formal registers. The verb get can also function as the passive in less formal registers.

    The conjugations of the verb be are as follows:

    • Base – Simple Present – Simple Past – Present Participle – Past Participle
    • be – am, is, are – was, were – being – been

    The conjugations of the verb get are as follows:

    • Base – Simple Present – Simple Past – Present Participle – Past Participle
    • be – get, gets – got – getting – gotten, got (rarely)

    Do not confuse the passive be with the progressive be.

    Passive Simple Present

    The first use of the passive be is within passive simple present constructions. The passive simple present expresses discrete actions or states in the present or near future while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • I am tortured by the thought.
    • She is bothered by the noise.
    • That bone is chewed on by my dog.
    • My flowers are eaten by rabbits.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive simple present include the following:

    • Lunches get delivered.
    • The apples get eaten by Friday.
    • Garbage gets picked up on Monday.
    • My daughter gets warned all the time.

    Passive Simple Past

    The second use of the passive be is within passive simple past constructions. The passive simple past expresses discrete, completed, noncontinuous actions or events in the past while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • The painting was stolen.
    • My aunt was left at the altar.
    • We were annoyed by the former neighbors.
    • The packages were delivered yesterday.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive simple past include the following:

    • I got attacked by Japanese lady beetles.
    • You got examined by a doctor.
    • The dress got damaged in the wash.
    • We got shaken by the earthquake.

    Passive Present Perfect

    The third use of the passive be is within passive present perfect constructions. The present perfect passive expresses and emphasizes previous actions with present implications that began in the past and continued up to the present while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • All the cookies have been eaten.
    • My homework has been turned in already.
    • Language has been studied for many years.
    • My toes have been broken many times.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive present perfect include the following:

    • You have gotten attacked by marmots!
    • The other team has gotten kicked in the butt.
    • You have gotten fired from your job?!
    • My coworkers have gotten recognized for their achievements.

    Passive Past Perfect

    The fourth use of the passive be is within passive past perfect constructions. The past perfect passive expresses previous actions or states with additional past implications that began in the past and continued up to another specific point in the past while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • The vase had just been knocked down when the earthquake happened.
    • Had verbs been studied before this class?
    • The tub had been cleaned before the sink.
    • Because a room had not been booked in advance, we were unable to find a hotel.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive past perfect include the following:

    • I had gotten punched in the chest.
    • You had gotten kicked in the stomach.
    • She had gotten smacked in the face.
    • They had gotten introduced already.

    Passive Present Progressive

    The fifth use of the passive be is within passive present progressive constructions. The present progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the present or near future while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • The car is being washed by my husband.
    • Football is not being played this year.
    • We are constantly being bugged by the neighbors.
    • The furniture is being moved this weekend.

    Note that the passive be follows the progressive be.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive present passive include the following:

    • You are getting removed from the mailing list.
    • My book is getting published soon.
    • You are getting painted for my art project.
    • The old computers are getting replaced by new ones.

    Passive Past Progressive

    The sixth use of the passive be is within passive past progressive constructions. The past progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the past while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • The vehicles were being washed by my husband.
    • Football was not being played last year.
    • I was constantly being bugged by our neighbor.
    • The furniture was being stored while the house was being painted.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive past passive include the following:

    • The envelope was getting sent to the leader.
    • We were getting awarded at the ceremony.
    • You were getting informed about the changes tonight.
    • The computers were getting connected yesterday.

    Passive Present Perfect-Progressive

    The seventh use of the passive be is within passive present perfect-progressive constructions. The present perfect-progressive passive expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states with present implications that began in the past and that may or may not continue into the future while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • I have been being yelled at all morning.
    • The toys have been being broken by the children.
    • The pamphlets have been being printed since last night.
    • Too much pollution has been being dumped in the river.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive present perfect-progressive include the following:

    • You have been getting attacked by the media.
    • Money has been getting collected by the organization.
    • We have been getting denied pay increases.
    • Apples have been getting stolen from my trees.

    Passive Past Perfect-Progressive

    The eighth use of the passive be is within passive past perfect-progressive constructions. The past perfect-progressive passive expresses incomplete or ongoing actions or states that began in the past until a specific point in time while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position. For example:

    • The child had been being yelled at by her mother yesterday.
    • Many animals had been being killed until the situation was addressed.
    • The cake had been being cake when the kitchen exploded.
    • Your document had been being printed just as the power went out.

    Examples of the passive get in the passive past perfect-progressive include the following:

    • I had been getting stung by wasps.
    • You had been getting attacked by those politicians.
    • We had been getting denied benefits.
    • You had been getting visited by potential clients.

    Be Versus Get

    Both be and get can form the passive in English. The get-passive occurs in less formal registers such as informal speech. The most prescriptive grammars proscribe the use of the get-passive, but English speakers use get to form the passive, and use trumps prescriptivism. Passive get often refers to an action that happens accidentally or unexpectedly. For example:

    • Carjackers stole my car.
    • My car was stolen (by carjackers).
    • My car got stolen (by carjackers).
    • The storm broke the living room window.
    • The living room window was broken (by the storm).
    • The living room window got broken (by the storm).

    The get-passive also often indicates habituality. For example:

    • My dad picks me up every Friday.
    • I am picked up every Friday (by my dad).
    • I get picked up every Friday (by my dad).

    The use of the passive get is also constrained by the verb that functions as the head of the verb phrase. The get-passive typically does not occur with verbs that denote a state. For example:

    • We know nothing about the incident.
    • Nothing is known (by us) about the incident.
    • *Nothing gets known (by us) about the incident.
    • Nobody liked the meal.
    • The meal was liked by nobody.
    • ?The meal got liked by nobody.
    • She said something nasty about your outfit.
    • Something nasty was said about your outfit (by her).
    • ?Something nasty got said about your outfit (by her).

    The only grammatical form that can function as the passive in the English language is the verbs be, or the passive be, and get in informal registers.

    Summary

    Passives in English grammar are words that express the passive voice.

    Passive is a grammatical function.

    The grammatical form that can function as the passive in English grammar is the verb phrase. The two auxiliary verbs that can function as the passive are the verbs be and get.

    Passives are constituents of the verb phrase.

    References

    Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
    Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
    Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
    Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.

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