113. Verbs that Cannot Be Passive

Debarred

Some verbs have no passive form, but can be paraphrased by the passive form of 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” – a verb with either -ed, like helped or copied, or an irregular equivalent, as in 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. The type of a particular verb is not reliably indicated by its meaning: it normally has to be discovered by other means and remembered independently.

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 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, such as RISE, cannot usually have an object, though some property-naming verbs (especially of measurement) are an exception. 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.

To place the object 124g at the start of the sentence, one can use the verb BE with weight, the noun from weighed (… was the weight of the substance). For more on using BE instead of passive verbs, see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs. Other verbs like WEIGH include CONSIST OF, COST, FIT, HAVE (= “possess”), LACK, LAST, MEAN, MEASURE, RESEMBLE and SUIT.

This post is about the third of the three main verb categories, excluding measurement verbs. The verbs are technically called “intransitive” and are identified in dictionaries by the abbreviation vi (“verb intransitive”). A list will be provided of some of the more common intransitive verbs found in professional writing, along with possible ways of paraphrasing them when a passive form is strongly preferred. The kinds of meanings that they can express can be read about in the post 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1. Grammar mistakes that they can cause are considered in 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors.

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INTRANSITIVE VERBS IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING

Intransitive verbs as a whole are of two rather different kinds. One kind usually needs a noun, pronoun or adjective directly after it and the other does 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 expression such as problem, 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). In general, verbs requiring a complement are intransitive just as verbs without any noun at all are, and they are included in the current discussion. Other examples besides BE are APPEAR, BECOME, REMAIN and SEEM.

Some intransitive verbs are rare in professional writing. One large group expresses bodily actions, e.g. BREATHE, DANCE, DIE, JUMP, LAUGH, LIVE, SMILE, SNEEZE and TALK. These include verbs that in other languages might express the same meaning with a “self” word as object, such as DRESS, RELAX, SIT and WASH (see 143. Problems Using “-self” Words). Another group rarely found in professional writing is intransitive verbs of the “phrasal” kind, such as GET BY (= “cope”), GIVE UP (= “despair), GO AHEAD (= “proceed”) and TURN UP (= “attend”). Most of these have a rather informal tone (see 108. Formal & Informal Words and 139. Phrasal Verbs).

A subjective list of intransitive verbs commonly found in formal writing is as follows. Note that a few also have a transitive use with a very different meaning.

APPEAR, APPLY (= “ask to be considered”), ARISE, ARRIVE, BE, BECOME, COME, DECLINE (= “decrease”), DETERIORATE, DIP (= “briefly decrease”), DISAPPEAR, EMERGE, EXIST, FAIL, FALL, FLOW, FLUCTUATE, FUNCTION, GO, HAPPEN, LAST, LIE, LIVE, MANAGE (= “BE SUCCESSFUL”), OCCUR, PROCEED, PROGRESS, PROTRUDE, PROVE (= “be seen as”), RECUR, REMAIN, RESULT, RISE, RUN (= “go”), SEEM, STAY, SUCCEED (= “be successful”), SURGE, SURVIVE, THINK, TRAVEL, VANISH, WORK

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PASSIVE EQUIVALENTS OF INTRANSITIVE VERBS

Sometimes in writing it is necessary to ensure that the verb you are using is passive. This is a contradiction of the advice that is normally given in manuals on the art of writing but is nevertheless shown to be true by scientific linguistic study (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2). The value of a passive verb without by, for example, can be seen by comparing the following two sentences:

(d) Competition between firms is gradually weakened.

(e) Competition between firms gradually weakens.

These show that both an active and a passive verb are equally capable of doing what the passive is traditionally said to be for: enabling the cause of a statement (here something like monopolisation) to be left unmentioned. What the passive additionally does is ensure the reader understands that such a cause exists. The active weakens does not do this – the reader could easily understand that the weakening in (e) just happened by itself without any external cause. Further discussion of the necessity of the passive can be read in the technical Guinlist article Active-Passive Paraphrases in English and What they Mean for Teaching.

What happens if a writer wants to use a passive form but thinks first of an intransitive verb that cannot be made passive as easily as WEAKEN? One possibility is to use that verb after BE MADE TO: was made to rise in (c). In many cases, though, you can replace the intransitive verb with the passive of a different verb, just as unwanted passives can often be replaced by different verbs in the active form (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs). Consider this:

(f) After a great deal of discussion, a solution emerged.

If we felt that emerged here gave insufficient recognition of the hard work of the people who found the solution, we might want to seek a passive verb that would change this. One possibility is was found. Indeed, this verb might be quite a common passive alternative to emerged.

Here are likely passive-verb alternatives to some of the other intransitive verbs listed above. In some cases the passives equate to one particular meaning of the intransitive 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

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

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

(g) I proceeded later.

The relevant noun here is procedure. A suitable verb to use with it is COMMENCE. The active form (The procedure commenced) would “hide” the word I, while the passive (… was commenced) would additionally affirm the writer’s involvement.

One point to remember about any way of achieving a passive is that it is not always better 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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