142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors



Active and passive verb forms can be confused in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons


Verbs are usually made passive by being given the “past participle” ending (-ed or irregular equivalent – see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun) and placed after some form of BE. Examples (with the BE part underlined) are was helped, is understood, were being copied, can be taken and should have been known. Sometimes BE is replaced by BECOME or informal GET, e.g. got taken. Meanings of the passive form are discussed in this blog in the posts 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 and 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning.

Using a passive verb is not in itself an error (see 27. How to Avoid Passive verbs and 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2). Passive verb errors are either impossible word combinations or possible combinations that do not express the intended meaning (see 100. What is a Grammar Error?). They are of three broad kinds: (1) the verb made passive when it should be active, (2) the verb made active when it should be passive, and (3) the verb put into an impossible form that is neither active nor passive. Here are examples of each:

(a) *Malaria victims are suffered high body temperatures.

(b) *After much discussion, three main objectives generated.

(c) *Following discussion, objectives will be generate.

The underlined words in (c) break the rule that verbs after BE need either -ing or -ed (see 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2, point # [f]). Since the verb should be passive, the -ed ending is of course the correct choice.

Each of the above errors can be explained in a different way – and indeed may have more than one possible explanation. In this post I aim to explore some possible causes of error in the choice between active and passive verb forms, my hope being that readers who do not yet possess full accuracy in this area may be helped to attain it more rapidly.



1. Mother Tongue Influence

Differences between a learner’s mother tongue and English are perhaps not the greatest cause of active/passive errors in English, but they are probably one. A likely influence may be on to verbs after adjectives like ready and useful, which some other languages make passive but English mostly makes active (useful to know – see 83. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 2). The error would thus be passives where actives were needed – another form of (a) above.


2. Poor Command of the Passive Form

Poor command of the way passive verbs are made is probably the simplest cause of passive verb errors. It exists when a writer or speaker has chosen to use the passive voice but fails to produce an accurate passive form.

One possible reason for such a failure is a misunderstanding about how exactly passive verbs are made in English. However, a more likely reason is that the correct form of the passive has not yet been learned strongly enough to be recalled quickly under the pressure of real-time communication. In other words, the speaker or writer will have knowledge of the correct form but not skill in using it (see 138. Test Your Command of Grammar for more on this distinction).

Poor command of the passive form could explain the errors in both (b) and (c) above. In (b), generated could be a passive verb to which the writer has failed to add the necessary BE part. If this was the case, the -ed would be that of the “past participle” rather than the similarly-spelt past simple active tense (we cannot tell which it actually is because both of these forms are the same in regular verbs like GENERATE).

In (c), if a passive verb is being sought, the error is an absent -ed. If lack of skill does not explain this kind of form error, incorrect knowledge caused by the way English works elsewhere might very easily. One influence could be the tendency of -ed endings to be pronounced so weakly in spoken English as to be barely heard (see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly). Another could be the fact that some verb spellings, such as open, also make adjectives, and so are usable after BE without an ending – is open as well as is opened (see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning). It seems easy to believe that such adjectives are verbs, and hence to think -ed can be dropped from verb-only spellings like generate. More on this confusion is in the post 133. Confusions of Similar Structures (#8).


3. Misunderstanding of a Passive Verb’s Meaning

Example (a) above might illustrate this problem. Superficially, the use of the passive are suffered seems to be another type of poor grammar command: choosing the passive in the wrong grammatical context (directly before the noun high body temperatures without a preposition in between). However, I believe that a misunderstanding of the meaning of the passive may be the real problem, causing the grammatical context to be ignored. Another example might be:

(d) *Water is filled (= “is poured into”) the tank.

The problem with the meanings of SUFFER and this use of FILL is that their active forms already express a passive meaning. If learners of English have been led to believe that passive meaning must always expressed with a passive verb, the above unnecessary uses of the passive must sometimes inevitably occur. The correct use of BE SUFFERED is after the cause of suffering – high body temperatures in (a) – not its recipient. Other verbs whose active form has a passive meaning at least some of the time include HAVE, RECEIVE, MEET and SEE. For more details, see 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1.


4. False Belief about a Verb’s Grammatical Properties

As suggested above, the error in sentence (b) above is not necessarily an intended passive verb gone wrong – it could be an intended active form (in the past simple tense) of a verb that should be passive.

There is a very good reason why the active form of GENERATE might seem possible in (b) to someone lacking deep familiarity with English: it is easily replaceable by a synonym in the active voice. There would be no problem, for example, with developed or emerged. DEVELOP is one of those verbs that can be either active or passive regardless of surrounding word order (see 4. Verbs that Don’t Have to be Passive), while EMERGE cannot ever be passive (see 113. Verbs that Cannot be Passive). Such properties are not a result of the verbs’ meanings – they have to be just observed and memorized.

The power of synonyms to affect grammar choices is extensively analysed within this blog in the posts 10/140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1/2. The problem, those posts point out, is that although synonyms do often follow the same grammar rules, exceptions are very common and cause numerous errors. The error above with generated may be one of those. It is true that GENERATE does also have synonyms that could not be used in the active voice in (b), such as OBTAIN or REACH. However, it will not be obvious to learners of English why GENERATE should be like them rather than like EMERGE and DEVELOP.

While the false grammatical belief behind (b) could be that an impossible active form is possible, the reverse – that an impossible passive is possible – might explain some errors like that in (a). Consider this:

(e) *Numerous problems are remained.

The verb REMAIN is of the kind that cannot ever be passive. The false belief that it can might have been influenced by the possibility of the synonymous passive are left. Note that (e) is like (a) only in containing a passive that should be active. A major difference is that SUFFER in (a) does not always have to be active: it can be passive in the right circumstances.

Another always-active verb that is easily used wrongly in the passive is CONSIST OF, like this:

(f) *Water is consisted of hydrogen and oxygen.

In many cases, the reason for a false belief about a verb’s grammar is probably simple uncertainty arising from the sheer unpredictability of verb properties. However, here, as with GENERATE, there is again a probable influence from the grammar of other verbs with a similar meaning. Both is composed of and is comprised of mean the same as consists of despite their passive forms. Even more confusing is the fact that COMPRISE can also, unusually, be used in the active voice in (f) (comprises without of). More about COMPRISE can be read in both 21. Active Verbs with Non-Active Meanings 1 and 42. Unnecessary Prepositions.


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