Grammatically Speaking

Dear Mr. Schmitt,

Of the four examples of passive voice in Strunk and White, three have been denounced as incorrect by critics. Which are not passive voice and why? How would you render the “incorrect” examples in true passive voice?

a) “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground."
b) "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard."
c) "It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had."
d) "The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.”


Dear Anonymous Questioner,

Thank you for sharing your question.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation

The passive construction is generally considered to be made up of the subject, the verb “to be” (in any tense), and the past participle, as in “It was thrown by David Schummy...” It can have a “by phrase” indicating the agent (by David Schummy, in this case), but that is not necessary. The passive is a separate grammatical structure from the active. In the case above, the active would be “David Schummy threw it.” We can see then that the standard active sentence structure of subject-verb-object is changed by moving the object to the subject position and changing the verb. The verb “to be” takes the tense of the main verb (simple past threw becomes was) and adding the past participle of the main verb (thrown). The agent David Schummy is now optional as “It was thrown” is a complete thought on its own.

It is important to note that only transitive verbs can be turned into passive constructions. Verbs that do not take an object clearly cannot move that missing object into the subject position, such as “When the sun rose.” In addition to the verb “to be,” it is possible to use the verb “to get” (“It got thrown”) for a more colloquial usage.

The verb “to be” is prolific in English, with many uses, and this can lead to some confusion as to its specific grammatical function in a sentence.

One use is to use it in the “there is/there are” construction, indicating existence, as in “There are places I remember.” This certainly seems to be the most logical reading of sentence (a) that you cite above, indicating the existence of dead leaves on the ground.

Another use is to join a noun and an adjective, as in “I am happy.” This seems to be the case in both uses of the verb “to be” in sentence (b), where we see the adjectives long and sorry, but no past participles. The so-called “stative passive” uses past participles that behave like adjectives as in “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” but in this case long and sorry are clearly not participles.

You may see and hear the use of the verb “to become” to form the passive voice as “to be” and “to get” are used, such as in “Then, the tailgating driver behind you subsequently ran into you, and they became hit by the person driving behind them.” However, there are many who find this construction inelegant at the very least, and it is not mainstream English usage. It may well be a case of interference from German or other languages that use “become” as the verb for constructing the passive. Thus, sentence (d) may be confused for a passive, but unless there is a clear agent that/who impaired that poor student’s health, then it is more likely to be interpreted as a nonagentive decline.

The question of rewriting these sentences is very challenging. Putting them in the passive would require changing verbs and changing the meaning considerably. If push came to shove, I would suggest the approximating sentences below:

A great number of dead leaves were strewn on the ground.

Here I use the verb strew, which is transitive, unlike lie, but comes somewhat close to the meaning.

It was not long before she was saddened by what she had said.

Here I use a form of the transitive verb sadden, instead of the adjective sorry.

The reason that he left college was that his health was impaired by constant stress.

Here I use the verb “to be” along with a clear agent, constant stress, rather than the verb “become.”

Teaching Tips

The passive construction is fairly straightforward as outlined above, though there are some complications with more advanced and specific uses. I have found that lessons that emphasize the flexibility of tense are useful as the past participle can influence learners to think that the passive cannot happen in the past, present, and future.

It is also useful to tell advanced students some of the most common uses of the passive: that the agent is unknown, already clear, or irrelevant; to highlight the receiver over the agent; and to create a sense of objectivity. They can then practice finding such uses in authentic texts. 

Language Notes

The active is more common than the passive in all forms of English, and some writers, including Strunk and White whom you cite, advocate minimizing it or even eliminating it. Business English in particular seems to prefer the active voice. However, academic, particularly scientific, language often uses the passive. A good knowledge of genres and their preferences on the use or nonuse of the passive can be helpful for advanced students.

Languages deal with the passive (if they have it) in many ways. Some learners may try direct translations (as “become” above). Some languages, such as Turkish, may use the passive more frequently than or in different situations from English.

Last Month's Brain Teaser

Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. I never was nor never will be false.”
  2. It don’t mean nothing if it don’t mean something so you don’t mean nothing to me.”

Nobody wrote to me for this one, which surprised me as I thought it was a pretty straightforward one. These are examples of negative concord, or the double negative. The double negative is generally frowned upon in mainstream English, especially as it is associated with low-prestige variations of English. However, the first example is from Shakespeare. It used to be standard in English, but was dying out by the time of Shakespeare, and the example above is his only use of the double negative. It has continued over the years in many varieties of English including African American Vernacular English and Cockney. This means that students may well hear it and even pick it up, especially if their first language uses double negatives, as, for example, Spanish, Russian, and Farsi do. It can be helpful to explain to students that the usage is not mainstream and may have negative connotations in some areas, particularly for those learning academic or business English.


It is with mixed emotions that I announce that I am stepping down from writing Grammatically Speaking. I have enjoyed this opportunity immensely, but I have started working on my dissertation project and would like to devote more time to that endeavor. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the many people who have helped me along the way. I would like to heartily thank those kind enough to have read through earlier drafts and given me their enormously helpful comments, including Hilary Kuris, Ross Fenske, Jim Runner, and especially Brett Reynolds. I would also like to thank my wonderful editor, Tomiko Breland, who has been incredibly supportive along the way. I would also like to thank TESOL Connections and TESOL International Association for this opportunity and for all the work they do for ESL and language professionals such as us. Last but far from least, I would like to thank you and all the readers for your wonderful questions, comments, and support over these past 5 years. I look forward to seeing you at TESOL conventions in years to come; feel free to follow me on LinkedIn.

Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the author’s creations.

Are you a grammar expert with a knack for clearly explaining how to teach grammar? TESOL is seeking a quarterly grammar columnist for TESOL Connections. The columnist will address difficult or tricky English grammar and usage issues. Open to all. Deadline: 31 October 2014. 

Read the call.


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