Sunday, August 25, 2013

More random thoughts on examples of the passive

Last year I wrote a post listing some unnatural examples of the passive I've found in books and on websites from people who should know better (linked to below).
It's fashionable in some circles to denigrate the passive (which we'll talk more of in a moment)- although many of the people who do so can't always recognise the passive themselves - which I've also written about - and I can understand why the people who do this might (and do) use silly examples to show how 'bad' they think the passive is.
But there are some more neutral or even supportive observers who also seem to come up with some rather strange examples, which is a bit puzzling, to say the least.

Case 1 - two silly examples of the passive

On a website claiming to give "Free writing advice from an academic editor and writing tutor", the author compares an active construction and a passive one:
  • Stefanie loves dogs. - active
  • The dogs are loved by Stefanie. - passive
Apart from the fact that the writer has added a the in the second sentence, thus changing its meaning (from dogs in general to some specific dogs), there is a problem with this passive example: it simply isn't natural English. Let's try and analyse why. Think about each question, then click on Show my comment.

Problem 1

1a. Do you think these sentences sound natural?

  • Stephanie loves the dogs every day.
  • Stephanie loved the dogs three times yesterday.
  • Stephanie is loving the dogs right now.
No, they don't sound natural (at least not to me). To find out why, answer the next question.

1b. What kind of verb is love?

For a bit of help, mouse over this
The verb love describes an emotional state; it is a stative (or state) verb. Those examples I gave were all of actions, and we don't usually think of 'love' as an action.

1c. Do we often use state verbs in the passive?

Many state verbs, such as have, suit, fit are not usually used in the passive
  • She has a lovely garden - NOT A lovely garden is had by her
  • The dress suits her well - NOT She is suited well by the dress
Others can sometimes be used in the passive, but only in certain contexts, where it makes sense to change the focus.
  • Samantha owns a house in the country
    - NOT A house in the country is owned by Samantha

    but we can say

    This beautiful country house is owned by a famous actress.
We can sometimes use verbs of emotion such as like, love, hate in the passive, but only in certain contexts.
  • Peter likes ice-cream - NOT Ice-cream is liked by Peter

    but we can say

    This ice-cream is especially liked by young women.
  • I hate this new law - NOT This new law is hated by me.

    but we can say

    The new law is particularly hated by drivers.
  • She loves her horses - NOT Her horses are loved by her.

    but we can say

    Her horses are much loved by the children who come to ride here.
It seems to me that we tend to do this mostly when we're talking about groups of people, rather than individuals.

Problem 2

Now let's look at a proper action verb being used in the active and in the passive. Which of these sentences do you think sound more natural, the active ones or the passive ones?:
  • Stephanie has taken the dogs for a walk.
    The dogs have been taken for a walk by Stephanie.
  • Where are the dogs? - Stephanie's taken them for a walk.
    Where are the dogs? - They've been taken for a walk by Stephanie.
To me, the active sentences sound more natural, even when the focus might be thought to be on the dogs as in the second pair. Why do think that is so? Who do you think is emotionally more important to me, Stephanie or the dogs?
Much as I might love the dogs, the fact that Stephanie is a person, and that I call her by her name, suggests that Stephanie is probably more emotionally important to me. And we hardly ever put the person who is more important to us after by in a passive construction. Their natural position is as subject, unless that would mean a rather long subject:
  • Where are the dogs? - They've been taken for a walk by Jennifer from next door.
In fact, we rarely follow a passive with 'by' and the name of someone in our close circle, and almost never with a personal pronoun like 'him, her' etc,
The same is usually true for someone we know well except in utterances like these, where we don't use their actual name and when our focus is on something else. In these cases the passive is perhaps a little more formal
  • Do you like my new necklace? My mother gave it to me. / It was given to me by my mother.
    BUT Mummy gave it to me. - NOT It was given to me by Mummy.
  • Would you like some cake? A friend of mine made it / It was made by a friend of mine.
    BUT Sally made it. - More natural than It was made by Sally.
We can, of course, use the passive, and put the agent (the person who does something) after 'by' when we are talking, for example, about the creators of books, music, paintings, films etc and when we are focussing on the work itself:
  • Oliver Twist was originally written by Charles Dickens and has been made into a film by, amongst others, David Lean and Roman Polanski. There was also a musical version, where both the music and lyrics were written by Lionel Bart.

But then things get even sillier.

The author then goes on to say -
"The passive voice can also be phrased like this:
  • The dogs are being loved by Stefanie.
This is also valid as it’s still in the present tense and the subject is still passive."

What is wrong with that sentence?

Think about what we've already been saying. For a bit of help, mouse over this
Well, I'd call it present continuous rather than the present tense, but whichever way you look at it, we have a continuous (or progressive) form, and we don't usually use state (stative) verbs in continuous (or progressive) forms. And as you will remember, love is a state verb.

But what about I'm lovin it?

Yes, there are times when we do use state verbs like love in continuous forms, but do you think people really love McDonalds in the same way Stephanie loves her dogs?

What verb could we use instead of love in the following sentences?

For a bit of help, mouse over this
  • I'm really loving my new job at the moment.
  • She's loving having the extra responsibility while the boss is away.
  • Just look at little Johnny, he's really loving all the attention he's getting.
In all these examples, love really means enjoy. What's more, we are talking about something happening now. And that's what the McDonald's slogan is all about, and that's why the public accepted it, despite the protests of the pedants, who said that as love is a state verb it can't be used in the continuous. In fact we do sometimes use love in the continuous, but only when we are talking about enjoying something now. Love as an emotion is something very different. It is a true state.

So do we never say loved by someone?

Never is a dangerous word in English. Looking at examples in Google Books, loved by seems to follow certain patterns:
  • Talking about groups of unspecified people
    He is loved by one half of the fans and hated by the other half.
    Cheltenham festival is loved by the Irish.
  • Talking about a reciprocal situation, where the same noun (in this case Jack) acts as the subject of an active construction and of the passive construction that follows it.
    Jack loves Jill, and is loved by Jill in return
  • Talking about books, film, stories etc
    This the story of Peter, who is loved by Samantha, his next door neighbour.
  • In a clause relating back to somebody just mentioned and who is the focus of that clause
    It's important for children to know that that they are loved by their parents.
  • In religious texts
    Know that you are loved by God.

And what about the dogs are loved by?

Google brings up only twenty entries for the dogs are loved by:
  • Two are for the website I've been talking about.
  • A few sound OK to me, where the dogs have already been talked about before and are the obvious focus of the sentence, and where the agents are not named or are not emotionally close to the speaker:
    • I understand that the dogs are loved by their owners, but these dogs should not be in a neighborhood filled with hundreds of children. (article in Dallas Morning News)
    • The dogs are loved by every single staff member (comment on Google +)
    • The dogs are loved by many people (from the same comment)
  • It also seems OK when talking about dogs in general
    • Dogs are loved by world leaders, celebrities and everyday people
  • But others sound unnatural to me, even where the dogs are the focus, especially where the agents are emotionally close to the speaker:
    • The dogs are loved by my kids and played with by their friends

Case 2 - one (deliberately?) silly example and two rather strange ones

Example 1 - silly cat!

The second set of examples come from a website I rather like, and where the writer takes a pretty balanced attitude to the passive, so I'm a bit reluctant to be critical. No doubt some people will feel that I'm being really pedantic to do so, especially as two of the examples aren't so much silly as a bit strange (to me).
But as someone who regularly teaches the passive and has posted a few lessons on it, with another couple in the pipeline, I feel very strongly that when discussing the passive, natural, realistic examples should be used. The same is true of any area of language, of course, but for some reason, it seems to be with the passive in particullar that the opposite often happens.
The writer starts off by using three examples to show the difference between active and passive, the first of which is:
  • Active: The cat sat on the mat
    Passive: The mat was sat on by the cat
Now this was probably meant to be a bit of a joke, as 'the cat sat on the mat' is sometimes used as an archetypal example of a sentence. But the fact is that nobody would ever say 'the mat was sat on by the cat', for reasons very similar to the ones we've already been discussing.
In fact the sentence 'the mat was sat on by the cat' is used on some other websites to show exactly when not to use the passive, so it seems a bit of a strange way to start an introduction.
The British National Corpus has three examples of 'sat on by'
  • one is about people 'being sat on by scaly monsters'
  • another appears to be from a rather intriguing anecdote - 'The other bloke was being sat on by three other passengers, including the little old lady in the straw hat, while Preston hopped around moaning and clutching his wrist, but he did not tell Polly this.'
  • and the third is about young rabbits that 'get sat on by their elders'
Nothing about mats or other inanimate objects whose normal function is to be sat on. That's not to say that a passive construction involving the mat and the cat, or something being sat on by the cat, are complete no-nos; we just need a suitable context:
  • Oh no! Our lovely new mat has been totally destroyed by the cat.
  • How did the doll's face get squashed? - It was sat on by the cat.
Just not 'the mat was sat on by the cat'. I could equally as well give these as examples of the passive:
  • The chair was sat on by my aunt.
  • The hat was put on by the man.
  • The car was got into by the driver.
  • My toe was just stood on by that man.
But I wouldn't, because they're nonsense. This is not how the passive is used in real life.

Example 2 - getting biblical

His next example is better, but I still have reservations.
  • Active: One of you will betray me
    Passive: I will be betrayed by one of you
When addressing somebody, or a group of people directly, the focus tends to be on them rather than on what they do, even when I is the subject:
  • I want you to do this right away
    NOT I want this to be done by you right away
There are eighteen examples of 'be betrayed by one of you' in Google search (besides this one), all religious and referring to what Jesus is reported to have said to his apostles before his arrest, a typical example being 'Tonight, I will be betrayed by one of you.'
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the writers of the King James Bible preferred the active:
  • When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
    (John 13:21)
  • And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
    (Matthew 26:21 )
  • And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.
    (Mark 4:18 )
So rather an unusual sentence to put forward as one of your main three examples illustrating the difference between the active and passive, I would have thought.

Example 3 - a web investigation

And I also had some doubts about his third example, but the reasons were a bit more difficult to put my finger on:
  • Active: Gove is criticising the passive voice
    Passive: The passive voice is getting criticised by Gove
The problem isn't with the passive voice being the subject, after all that's what the focus of the article is, and I'd have had no problem with something like:
  • Active: Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has criticised the passive voice in a memo to his department.
    Passive: The passive voice has been criticised by Michael Grove, the Education Secretary, in a memo to his department.
or, if we've already introduced the subject of Michael Gove:
  • Active: Gove has criticised the passive voice several times recently
    Passive: The passive voice has been criticised by Gove several times recently
It seems to me that the use of the passive in these examples is natural, but I have problems with the original example as it stands, and it's nothing to do with passive get, but with getting and the unqualified single word agent - Gove

A little diversion - Gove, Strunk, Orwell and the passive

Michael Gove is Britain's Secretary of State for Education (education minister) and a controversial figure in the education world, to put it mildly. He famously sent a five-page memo to his staff in the Department of Education, in which he says 'Use the active, not the passive voice' echoing Orwell, Strunk and other critics of the passive.
Gove introduces his memo, apparently in response to staff requests for advice on style, like this:
'Thank you for your letter of the 17th asking me, on behalf of your colleagues, how I like letters to be drafted.'
As you might have noticed, this includes an example of the very passive he doesn't want his staff to use. Which is perhaps not very surprising, as critics of the passive are often apt to use it themselves on occasion (like any good writer). And some even, more than most.
William Strunk (1869–1946), a professor of English at Cornell University, published The Elements of Style, a style guide, in 1918. After it was revised and enlarged by his former student E. B. White 'The Elements' became 'a highly influential guide to English usage during the late 20th century' (Wikipedia), although this was principally in the United States. In a section of 'The Elements' called 'Use the active voice' Strunk writes:
Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as 'there is', or 'could be heard'.
Which is itself, of course, in the passive.
In Britain, the most famous critic of the passive was George Orwell. In his famous (and in some linguistics circles, notorious) 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language', George Orwell gives six rules for good writing, one of which is 'Never use the passive where you can use the active'. But he himself comments that in the sort of writing he's criticising
the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).
And linguists have calculated that his own use of the passive in this essay is well above average. In that paragraph, for example, he uses six active verbs and one active participle, but also six passive verbs and two passive participles, and I don't think it's meant to be a parody. The rest of the essay is much the same.

Back to 'getting criticised'

In informal English we sometimes use a passive construction with get rather than be
  • He got stopped for speeding.
  • We get paid tomorrow.
  • You'll get ripped off if you buy it from them.
  • You might get stung if you go into the nettles.
But it seems to me that it is very rarely used in continuous (progressive) forms, and no web site that I've found talking about passive get gives any examples in the continuous.
When it is used in the continuous, it tends to be for a repeated action, especially by more than one person. Here's an example from an article about the singer Kris Kristoffersen from the Independent:
  • And he stood up for me when I was getting criticized by everybody in country music

Examples of 'getting criticised by' on the web

There are no instances of 'getting criticized by' or 'getting criticised by' in the British National Corpus. There are a few in Google Books, thirteen for criticised and perhaps fifty or so for criticized, but none of them followed by a single named person, apart from a few times when it is used as a gerund, such as this:
  • Getting criticized by Sally activated an automatic tendency to self-protect
Google search comes up with about 170 instances of 'getting criticised by' and about 360 instances of 'getting criticized by', but a lot of them too are gerunds, for example:
  • Now, I'm not too worried about our players getting criticised by Australians,
  • Getting booed by this crowd is like NASA getting criticized by Michelle Bachman: I find it hard to care.
or gerund/participle type constructions
  • you would rather not see sports getting criticised by their international federations
  • anyone who covers politicians aggressively will end up getting criticized by partisans
Of those that are finite verbs, some use a construction with for
  • Accountants are often getting criticised by clients for not knowing when the accounts they prepare will be delivered
  • Rudy Giuliani is getting criticized by the NY Post for rooting for the Red Sox
Some use a word like often, always or keep that suggest repetition
  • I keep getting criticized by John Kerry and others on my foreign policy expertise.
  • I am always getting criticized by Kurio
With most of those with finite verbs, by is followed by a plural, usually referring to a group, suggesting that the criticism is an ongoing process rather than a simple event.
  • We might be getting criticised by the pundits, but that's what they do
  • But Brown's plan is getting criticized by some legislators
Many are from the world of sport, a lot of them to do with British football. The majority come from blogs and fan sites, not from professional writing.
  • he is getting criticised by fans
  • At the moment, Scottish football is getting criticised by all quarters
Apart from the two Gove examples, there are only eight examples of finite forms of getting criticised that I can find where it is used with one person. In five, the person is specified but unnamed, for example:
  • plus I was getting criticised by my partner
  • One of my clients was getting criticised by his manager
And in only three is the person named, but none with a single name ending the sentence. In the first, for example, we have quite a long agent phrase, which we might expect to find at the end of the sentence (end-weighting), and where Mourinho has obviously been previously mentioned. And in the other two we have well-known people who are given their full names. (Using a single surname like 'Gove' suggests the person has already been mentioned).
  • The writing was clearly on the wall last week when Mourinho was getting criticised by that fool Blatter
  • Just how sorry she was i heard she was getting criticised by Ulrika Jonnson like shes a beacon of morality
  • Real estate speculators are getting criticised by President Obama and some of them are downright mad about it
There were a few more for finite forms of getting criticized (the commoner spelling), but I could only find about fifteen where the agent was alone and specifically named, which I've listed at the end. As far as I can tell, when the agent is a single named person, they have nearly always been previously mentioned.
In most of these (very few) examples we can imagine that the criticism is or was repetitive, and when a single name is mentioned, that person has usually already been referred to in the same text.
But as far as I know, Gove has publicly criticised the passive only once, in that memo to his department. To be fair, his name had already been mentioned in the post (in fact it introduces it), but it was a few paragraphs back, and usually when you give grammatical examples, they tend to be free-standing.
Now again, I expect this was meant to be a bit of a joke, in reference to Gove's attitude to the passive and the introduction to the post. But it does make me wonder once more, was this really one of the three best ways to explain the difference between the active and the passive?

Why the obsession with by and direct comparisons?

The writer in the second case does go on to say that 'one obvious thing you can do is to omit the agent', and proceeds to give several perfectly acceptable examples. In fact, according to one grammar book, Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE (Longman), only about twenty percent of passive sentences mention the agent, so it makes you wonder why so many writers think that the by construction is the best way to introduce the passive.
I think the second problem is trying to exactly match a passive sentence to the active, since it often doesn't work like that, especially with agentless sentences, which make up the vast majority of passive sentences:
  • Active: The police have arrested his son for shoplifting.
    Passive: His son has been arrested for shoplifting.
  • Active: Someone is suing the newspaper for libel.
    Passive: The newspaper is being sued for libel.
  • Active: They gave all the children prizes
    Passive:The children were all given prizes.
  • Active: The boss had warned her about it many times before.
    Passive: She'd been warned about it many times before.
And if we are going to make direct comparisons with by, we can at least use realistic ones:
  • Active: Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1838.
    Passive: Oliver Twist was written by Charles Dickens in 1838.
  • Active: The Chinese probably invented gunpowder in the 9th century.
    Passive: Gunpowder was probably invented by the Chinese in the 9th century.
  • Active: A big black dog is chasing the cat round the garden.
    Passive: The cat is being chased round the garden by a big black dog.
  • Active: Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
    Passive: Jesus was betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver.
  • Active: Michael Gove has criticised the passive voice in a memo to his staff.
    Passive:The passive voice has been criticised by Michael Gove in a memo to his staff.

How it should be done

This is from the introduction to the passive in Raymond Murphy's English Grammar in Use (Cambridge)

We use an active verb to say what the subject does:

  • My grandfather was a builder. He built this house in 1930.
  • It's a big company. It employs two hundred people.

We use a passive verb to say what happens to the subject

  • The house is quite old. It was built in 1930.
  • Two hundred people are employed by the company.

When we use the passive, who or what causes the action is often unknown or important ... if we want to say who does or what causes the action, we use by ...

  • This house was built by my grandfather.
  • Two hundred people are employed by the company.
Quite simple, really. When you know how.

A parting question.

Look at almost any EFL/ESL course book or good website, like BBC Learning English, The British Council, English Test, Using English and (linked to below), and you will find perfectly good, natural exampes of the passive. So why is it that some writers on language find it so hard to come up with natural everyday examples? It's a mystery to me.
As we've seen, there is a lot of hostility to the passive in some quarters. I don't think we're going to do the case of the passive much good by using unrealistic, unnatural or obscure examples, or examples where the active would probably be better.

Related posts

Discussing the passive

Lessons on the passive


Where to find good examples of the passive.

  • BBC Learning English -
  • British Council -
  • English Test -
  • Using English - quiz -
  • Using English - by + agent -
  • -

Links connected with the post.


Instances of named agents with getting criticized by in Google search

  • NetApp are getting criticized by Chuck (again!), this time for making public our SSD roadmap
  • Soul's art, which was a sort of lop-sided but nicely detailed Kishin egg soul, was getting criticized by Kid
  • He couldn't believe he was getting criticized by Link, aka the guy who got them in the situation in the first place
  • And here I am wondering what happened to D-Wade and Sir Charles when Wade was getting criticized by Charles
  • since Saxton was getting criticized by Rogin in a left-wing journal,
  • Al Thorton has been getting criticized by Sterling
  • Yes, Mr. President, if your one-man army capable of tearing apart a tank is getting criticized by Joan Rivers and Bill Maher
  • And the GOP's proposed defense cuts are getting criticized by Hillary Clinton, no less, which seems worthy of note
  • Our friend, Colion Noir, and the NRA are getting criticized by Russell Simmons for having him as their newest spokesman.
  • At first when I was getting criticized by Beth Phoenix I stood up for myself
  • Maria was about to pass out and Elizabeth was getting criticized by Lady Catherine
  • Tyreke has been getting criticized by Coach Westphal for his late game decision making
  • Apparently the singer has been getting criticized by #teamnatural on her Instagram and blog


Anonymous said...


another great post on passives cheers :)

going a bit offtopic regarding the Orwell essay, i agree with this view ( that the essay was not about how to write in general but political writing that tends to promote violence e.g. the last rule 6 -
"Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."


Warsaw Will said...

Thanks for the comment, Mura. I had a quick look at your blog, and as a result, I’ve added Word and Phrase Info to my list of collocation-finding tools. Thanks for that. I recently wrote a about these.

Apropos Orwell, while I agree that much of his essay is concerned with mainly political language, the beginning and ending seem to me to be about non-literary language in general.

He starts off by saying that the English language is ‘in a bad way’, and thinks that ‘the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes’. He then gives five examples of the sort of writing he is criticising, the first three of which have nothing to do with politics. And when he details the types of language he doesn’t like, much of his criticism is directed at what he sees as the meaningless or the pretentiousness of the words themselves rather than their political use. What is true is that he sees political writing as providing particularly bad examples of this.

Orwell introduces the last section with the famous six rules by talking about ‘the defence of the English language’ and he later says that he is talking about ‘language as an instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought’, which I would take to be much wider than just the language of politics. Mind you, he did write in another essay, ‘Why I write‘, that all his own writing from 1936 on had been against totalitarianism, so perhaps he saw political writing in a rather wider vein.

What’s more, I think this way of thinking gels with what he wrote about language in his Listener articles and BBC talks. (What the writer of the article you refer to seems to forget is that Orwell was himself a journalist). And I think Orwell was concerned to put these rules into use in his last two novels, Animal Farm and 1984, where the language is much simpler than in his previous work.

As far his last, and perhaps most important, rule, I’ve always understood that by ‘barbarous’, he simply meant ‘ugly’, especially as he earlier refers to ‘avoidable ugliness’ in the passages he quotes.

Warsaw Will said...

Sorry, I missed out the link to the post about web collocation finders.

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