• The passive is the most misunderstood
structure in the English language.
• English teachers love to make
pronouncements about it (as in “Avoid
passives”) -- but many can not recognize
• Part of the hatred for the passive is actually
based on a dislike for the verb “BE,” which is
an integral part of the passive.
Recognizing a Passive
• There are two features that a verb
phrase MUST have to be recognized as
– an auxiliary form of the verb “be” and
– a lexical verb in the past participle form.
• There are other restrictions, but without
these two -- forget it.
Beat the English teacher: find the passives
Has been taught
Have been being taught
Is being taught
Will be being taught
Beat the English teacher: SOLUTIONS
Has been taught > passive (been/ taught)
Is teaching > not passive
Have been being taught > passive
Teaches > not passive
Is taught > passive (is/taught)
Is being taught > passive (is/being/taught)
Has taught > not passive
Taught > not passive
Will be being taught > passive (be/being/ taught)
This is English-teacher-speak for two style concepts that we
should address before continuing to actually learn something
about the passive:
– avoiding wordiness (wordy) and
– avoiding relatively content-free verbs (usage).
These sins are not passives.
They are part of a kind of weak, flaccid style, but that doesn’t
make them passives.
In short, many teachers wrongly use “passive” and “flaccid”
• Here’s a sentence that an English
teacher mistakenly marked as passive.
• It’s not passive --- but it’s not a
particularly good sentence either.
• When he first saw New Bedford, Mass.,
Douglass was doubtful of his own
• Wordiness is characterized by more
words than the writer requires to
express his/her point.
• Wordiness can sometimes be the result
of using a form of “be” as the lexical
verb. This can force the use of extra
• Wordy: When he first saw New
Bedford, Mass, Douglass was doubtful
of his own eyesight.
• Corrected: When he first saw New
Bedford, Mass., Douglass doubted his
“Avoid Forms of the Verb Be”
• This is another injunction that English
• They confuse “be” as the lexical verb
with “be” as part of the passive.
• Because they wrongly hate the passive,
they target all forms of the verb “be” for
• Here’s a sentence that another English
teacher wrongly marked as passive.
• His reaction was noisy.
Think About It
• If you listened to most English teachers
with advice such as “avoid forms of be”
you’d end up with:
• His reaction noisy.
• This is great Arabic, but bad English.
• Instead English teachers should say:
• “If possible restate sentences in which
‘be’ is the lexical verb. Choose a verb
that has nuances and more precise
• He reacted noisily.