In English grammar, passivisation is the transformation of a sentence from an active form to a passive form. Through the process of passivisation, the direct object of an active declarative sentence can become the subject of a passive sentence.

John bought a car. (active) –> A car was bought by John. (passive)

Passivisation is the shift in focus from the agent (the performer or doer) and his actions to the patient (the receiver or doee) and the actions done onto him. The opposite of passivisation is activization. Both terms were coined by linguist Noam Chomsky.

With the basic word order of subject-verb-object [SVO], we can analyze passive structures as the promotion of the patient from the [O]-slot to the [S]-slot along with the optional deletion of the agent.

[ S ] [ V ] [ O ]
[ Mary ] [ lectures ] [ her students ] becomes…
[ Her students ] [ are lectured ] or…
[ Her students ] [ are lectured ] [ by Mary ].

Points to Note

  • agent + verb + patient –> patient + form of be + past participle verb (+ agent)
  • mentioning the agent is optional
  • the verb in the active sentence changes from transitive to intransitive in the passive
ActivePassive
She robbed the bank.The bank was robbed (by her).
He breaks windows.The windows are broken (by him).
Sally is going to be drinking wine.The wine is going to be drunk by Sally.

In passivisation, the passive counterpart of an active clause usually contains a form of be and a past participle.

Sam saw the man in the service station.

      1. The man in the service station was seen by Sam.
      2. The man was seen by Sam in the service station.

Passivisation allows to leave out the Actor in Material processes, Experiencer in Mental processes, and Sayer (speaker) in Verbal process clauses.

Material: Poachers killed the elephant – the elephant was killed
Mental: Rangers noticed the vultures. – The vultures were noticed.
Verbal: The marksmen told the poacher to freeze. – The poacher was told to freeze.

Some early critical linguists tend to posit a direct and automatic connection between surface linguistic form and underlying ideological meaning. Passivisation and nominalisation however, have no intrinsic meaning; an utterance which contains a passive or nominalised structure only has a meaning-in-context, as constructed by each hearer or reader. Meaning is always the result of a particular reader’s inferential processing.

S :The boy ate the apple.
DS :The boy + past + eat + the apple
T-Pass :The apple + past + be-en + eat + by + the boy
AS :The apple + be-past + eat-en + by + the boy
MPC :The apple + was + eaten + by + the boy
SS :The apple was eaten by the boy.
S :He would have seen her.
DS :He + past + will + have-en + see + her
T-Pass :She + past + will + have-en + be-en + see + by him
AS :She + will + past + have + be-en + see + en + by him
MPC :She + would + have + been + seen + by him
SS :She would have been seen by him.
S :She has painted these pictures.
DS :She + pres. perf. + have-en + paint + these pictures
T-Pass :These pictures + pres. perf. + have-en + be-en + paint + by her
AS :These pictures + have-pres. + been + paint-en (perf.) + by her
MPC :These pictures + have + been + painted + by her
SS :These pictures have been painted by her.

Restrictions on Passivisation

Active sentences with an intransitive verb cannot be passivised.

She jumps rope –> ?

Active sentences with a stative verb cannot be passivised.

I own a cat. –> A cat was owned by me.

However, Everybody had a good time. –> A good time was had by all is acceptable and also exceptional, since A good time was had by all is idiomatic.

Idioms in active construction cannot be passivised, and similarly, idioms in passive construction cannot be activized.

Bruno jumped the gun. (active) –> The gun was jumped by Bruno. (passive)
We were had by our rivals. (passive) –> ? Our rivals had us. (active)

Certain types of Direct Object, for example, NPs headed by reflexive pronouns, cannot become the Subjects of passive clauses.

He scarcely knew himself. > Himself was scarcely known by him.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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