113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive

Debarred

Some verbs have no passive form, but the functions of the passive can be achieved by using a different verb

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VARIATION IN THE PROPERTIES OF ENGLISH VERBS

Many English verbs can be changed into what is called the “passive” form. Examples are is understood, was helpedwere being copied, can be taken and should have been known. The passive form comprises some form of BE (underlined in the examples) plus a “past participle” – either a verb with -ed, like helped or copied, or an irregular equivalent, such as understood, taken or known (see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun and 97. Verb Form Confusions). Sometimes you can replace BE with BECOME or informal GET, e.g. got hit. Verbs that are not passive are usually called “active”.

In the post 8. Object-Dropping Errors, there is a classification of verbs according to their ability to be made passive. One type (e.g. HELP) sometimes needs to be active, sometimes passive, depending on the order of surrounding words; another (e.g. INCREASE) can be active with any word order, but in some cases can also be passive (see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive); and the third type (e.g. RISE) cannot ever be passive and so must always be in the active form.

It is verbs of this third type – technically called “intransitive” – that the present post is about. Lists are provided of some of the more common ones in professional writing, and consideration is given to how a writer might achieve the same sorts of things with them that are achieved with other verbs by making them passive. For information about grammar mistakes that never-passive verbs can cause, see 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors.

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FEATURES OF NEVER-PASSIVE VERBS

Never-passive verbs cannot reliably be identified from their meaning: they often have to be identified by other means and remembered independently. However, meanings are not a completely useless guide, and some interesting observations in this area are presented in the Guinlist post 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1.

A verb’s ability to be made passive is usually linked to its ability to have an object when in the active form. Verbs like HELP always need an object when they are active (unless they are of the “object-dropping” kind like EAT – see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Verbs like INCREASE sometimes have an object when they are active but sometimes do not. Never-passive verbs like RISE cannot usually have an object, though there are exceptions.

One important group of never-passive verbs that typically do have an object is verbs indicating properties (especially numerical). In the following sentence, for example, the verb WEIGH has an object and cannot be rewritten in the passive:

(a) The substance weighed 124g after heating.

Other verbs like WEIGH include CONSIST OF, COST, FIT, HAVE (= “possess”), LACK, LAST, MEAN, MEASURE, RESEMBLE and SUIT. For more about their use, see 163. Ways of Naming Properties.

A second group of object-taking verbs that cannot be passive are those whose object is a -self word, such as BEHAVE, ENJOY, HELP and IMPROVE. For more examples, see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words.

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NEVER-PASSIVE VERBS IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING

All types of never-passive verbs are quite common in professional writing. Of those needing an object, verbs like WEIGH have an obvious value, while -self verbs can be surprisingly suitable too (see the relevant post). Of those allowing no object, two rather different kinds exist: some have a noun or equivalent directly after them and some do not. Compare:

(b) Unemployment was a problem.

(c) Unemployment rose.

Here, (b) cannot end with its verb (was) in the way that (c) can: it must be directly followed by a noun like problem, or by a pronoun, or by an adjective, or by a time/place adverb like there. Verbs like rose, on the other hand, cannot have a noun directly after them. They can have a noun with a preposition before it (e.g. in June), or any other type of adverb phrase, or they can end the sentence as in (c).

The noun after was in (b) looks very like an object. However, it is not one because it is a description of the subject of the sentence unemployment. This makes it a “complement” (see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). Complement-requiring active verbs are quite common in professional writing. Other examples besides BE are APPEAR, BECOME, FEEL, GROW, LOOK, PROVE (= “be seen as”), REMAIN, SMELL, SOUND, SEEM, STAY, TASTE and TURN. The underlined ones tend to have adjective rather than noun complements.

Of verbs with no following noun, like RISE in (c), some are rare in professional writing. One large group expresses bodily actions, e.g. BREATHE, DANCE, DIE, JUMP, LAUGH, LIVE, SMILE, SNEEZE and TALK. Also rare are verbs of a “phrasal” kind, such as GET BY (= “cope”), GIVE UP (= “despair), GO AHEAD (= “proceed”) and TURN UP (= “attend”). They are often unsuitable because they are rather informal (see 108. Formal & Informal Words and 139. Phrasal Verbs).

Verbs like RISE that are subjectively common in formal writing might include the following (note that a few are also usable with a following noun, but with a very different meaning):

APPEAR, APPLY (= “be relevant”), ARISE, ARRIVE, COME, DECLINE (= “decrease”), DETERIORATE, DIP (= “decrease slightly”), DISAPPEAR, EMERGE, EXIST, FAIL, FALL, FLOW, FLUCTUATE, FUNCTION, GO, HAPPEN, LAST, LIE, LIVE, MANAGE (= “BE SUCCESSFUL”), OCCUR, PROCEED, PROGRESS, PROTRUDE, RECUR, RESULT, RISE, RUN (= “go”), STAY, SUCCEED (= “be successful”), SURGE, SURVIVE, THINK, TRAVEL, VANISH, WORK.

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WAYS TO ACHIEVE PASSIVE VOICE EFFECTS WITH VERBS THAT CANNOT BE PASSIVE

Contrary to the advice of many writing manuals, the English passive voice has some definite uses that should not be underestimated. It can facilitate the positioning of nouns and their equivalents in sentences (see 156. Mentioning What the Reader Knows Already), and it allows nouns and noun equivalents to be left unmentioned without completely “hiding” them (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”).

The wording of the second of these uses is not quite what is found in most English coursebooks. It highlights the fact that “hiding” can be achieved by other means than just the passive voice, and it suggests that the special nature of hiding with the passive is to signal the existence of what is hidden. Compare the following:

(d) After much discussion, a solution emerged.

(e) After much discussion, a solution was found.

Both of these equally well “hide” the source of a solution (the people doing the discussing). However, the passive was found additionally ensures that the reader appreciates the existence (and hard work) of such a source. The active emerged does not do this – the reader might understand that the solution just appeared by itself without any external cause. Further discussion of passive verb meaning can be read in the technical Guinlist article Active-Passive Paraphrases in English and What they Mean for Teaching.

The positioning and “hiding” uses of the passive can still be achieved when the verb that first comes to mind cannot be made passive. The most common solution is to find a completely different verb.

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1. Replacement Verbs for Changing Noun Positions

Changed noun positions do not necessarily require a new verb to be passive. Consider the active verb substitute below that overcomes the inability of HAVE to be made passive:

(f) Drug abuse has many causes.

(g) There are many causes of drug abuse.

Here, the alternative verb is BE (combined with of). This correspondence is examined in more detail in the Guinlist post 161. Presenting Information with “There”.

In the following example, where SUCCEED is the verb that cannot be passive, changed noun positions are achieved by the passive form of a new verb:

(h) The new method succeeded.

(i) Success was achieved by the new method.

For more on this sort of paraphrase, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”?. Note that we could also use a replacement verb in the active voice here (Success came with … – see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs).

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2. Replacement Verbs for Hiding Nouns

In many cases, a never-passive verb will already be “hiding” a source or cause of what it represents. Therefore, the only reason that can exist for finding a substitute is not so much to hide anything as to emphasise that hiding is being done. This means only passive verb substitutes can be used. When they are preferred, the positions of the mentioned nouns will remain the same.

Here are likely passive-verb alternatives to some of the other never-passive verbs listed above. In some cases the passives equate to one particular meaning of the never-passive verb rather than others.

APPEAR: BE FORMED

ARRIVE/COME: BE BROUGHT

BECOME/TURN: BE MADE

DETERIORATE: BE MADE WORSE

DISAPPEAR/VANISH: BE REMOVED/BECOME HIDDEN

EXIST: CAN BE SEEN/NAMED/LISTED

FAIL: NOT BE ACHIEVED

FALL: BE REDUCED

FLOW: BE CHANNELLED

FUNCTION: BE OPERATED

GO: BE TAKEN/BE SENT/BE CHANNELLED

HAPPEN: BE BROUGHT ABOUT

LAST: BE MAINTAINED

LIE: BE LAID (see 97. Verb Form Confusions)

OCCUR: BE BOUGHT ABOUT

PROCEED: BE LED FORWARD

PROTRUDE: BE EXTENDED

RISE: BE RAISED (see 97. Verb Form Confusions)

RUN: BE DIRECTED

SEEM/APPEAR: BE PERCEIVED

RECUR: BE REPEATED

REMAIN/STAY: BE KEPT

RESULT: BE CAUSED/BE CREATED

TRAVEL: BE TRANSPORTED

WORK: BE EMPLOYED

Note that if finding a different verb like one of the above proves difficult, the alternative strategy of looking for a related noun is again possible. Consider this example from the post 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”:

(j) I proceeded later.

The relevant noun here is procedure. To avoid I a suitable passive verb might be was commenced.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the passive is quite often a worse choice than an intransitive verb: there must be a special reason for using it. Critics of the passive are not wrong in saying that the active is more common.

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19 thoughts on “113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive

  1. The verbs decline, deteriorate, dip, disappear, emerge, flow, function, last, protrude, recur, succeed, surge, travel, and vanish can be conjugated in passive voice. Give me examples. Thanks a lot Paul Fanning.

    • Hi Raul. All of the verbs in your list have an intransitive use – not able to be used in the passive voice – but some only do so when they have specific meanings. DECLINE needs to have the meaning of “decrease”, not of “refuse”, DIP needs to mean “go briefly down”, not “immerse in water” and SUCCEED needs to mean “achieve objectives”, not “follow”

      • Brush, charge, check, clear, collect, complain, confess, complete, crush can be conjugated in passive form

  2. Hi: The irregular verbs hand-write, inlay, misunderstand, shear, withdraw can be conjugated in passive voice. Give me with two examples about each verbs mentioned previously. Thank you Mr. Paul Fanning.

    • OK. (a) “Letters must be handwritten” (b) “The ring was inlaid with gold” (c) “Children are often misunderstood” (d) “Sheep are shorn annually” (e) “The offer may be withdrawn“.

  3. Good evening: Thanks for your help and I want to ask if the verb “breathe” can be passive voice and give me two examples. Thanks again.

    • Hi. You can indeed use BREATHE in the passive voice. You have to make its subject the thing that is breathed, e.g. “Polluted air should not be breathed” or “Many sighs of relief were breathed when the temperature fell”.

    • Thanks for your question. Yes, ANSWER can be passive. You can say, for example, “The message will be answered” (subject = something said) or “The critics were answered” (subject = person/s). Both of these subject types can also be the object of ANSWER in the active voice.

      • Hi again. Yes, WASH can be passive. But you have to be careful. If you say “The children were washed”, you mean that another person washed the children. If you mean that the children washed themselves, you use the active: “They washed”. You can also say “They got washed”, which can be understood either way.

  4. I have received your book”Grammar practice for professional writing” and read the book,but it did not seem to be as informative as your blog.According to me the posts of your blog are more informative and prominent.I would like to know that is there any book written by you that can explain the grammar rules as your blog does.I think you must publish a book explaining like your blog because your blog explains word by word that could be helpful to others.So,I would request you to suggest a book that must be similar to your blog,and helpful to me as I am average in English.I would wait for your answer.Tomorrow is the time to publish a post as you know tomorrow is monday.Thank you,and have a nice day.

    • Thanks for these further kind words of yours, and thanks for purchasing the book. I agree that a book with material like the posts would be a good idea and I am in fact working on achieving just that. However, it would be the most popular of the current posts that would go into such a book, not new ones, as I could not write separate pieces for a book and for the blog. Posts in the book would then, alas, be removed from the blog.

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