Definitions and Examples of Passivization in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Young boy eating a sardine
Through the process of passivization, the active sentence "Pip ate the last sardine" becomes "The last sardine was eaten by Pip".

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In English grammar, passivization is the transformation of a sentence from an active form to a passive form. Passivization is also known as raising. The alternate (chiefly British) spelling is passivisation.

Through the process of passivization, the direct object of an active declarative sentence can become the subject of a passive sentence.

The opposite of passivization is activization. Both terms were coined by linguist Noam Chomsky.

How to Use Passivization

In order to understand passivization, it is helpful to view examples from a variety of texts.

"Passivisation ... keeps together those units or bits of language that form a constituent. The passive counterpart of an active clause usually contains a form of be and a past participle: (i) The man in the service station was seen by Muriel. (ii) The man was seen by Muriel in the service station." (Angela Downing and Philip Locke, A University Course in English Grammar. Routledge, 2002)

"Passivisation allows you 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

[S]ometimes this enables newspapers, for instance, to protect sources by omitting the sayer, or to retail their own opinions as though they were someone else's: e.g. 'It is widely believed the BJP will not survive the confidence vote in the Indian Parliament.' ... the omission of an Actor will avoid apportioning blame or responsibility." (Andrew Goatly, Critical Reading and Writing: An Introductory Coursebook. Routledge, 2000)

Passivization and Meaning

"[S]ome early critical linguists tend to posit a direct and automatic connection between surface linguistic form and underlying ideological meaning. For instance, passivization or nominalization would be seen as necessarily expressive of reader obfuscation. In fact, however, passivization and nominalization have no such intrinsic meaning; an utterance which contains a passive or nominalized structure only has a meaning-in-context, as constructed by each individual hearer or reader. Meaning is always the result of a particular reader's inferential processing." (Jean J. Weber, Critical Analysis of Fiction: Essays in Discourse Stylistics. Rodopi, 1992)

"[W]hile Tom kicked the bucket is ambiguous between literal and idiomatic interpretations, The bucket was kicked by Tom (traditionally derived by passivisation) and The bucket Tom kicked (derived by thematic fronting) allow only the literal interpretation. Note, however, that there is some variation in the extent to which such syntactic processes are inapplicable to sentences containing idioms: passive The hatchet was finally buried, for example, has the same ambiguity as active They finally buried the hatchet (though the version with thematic fronting, The hatchet they finally buried, does not here have the idiomatic interpretation.)" (Rodney Huddleston, Introduction to the Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 1984)

"While accepting that passivization entails a difference in perspective on a given state of affairs, Standard Functional Grammar emphasizes that the given state of affairs as well as its argument structure remains intact. The nuclear predicate (to be realized by the 'main verb') retains its original argument structure in the underlying representation." (Louis Goosens, "Passivization As a Turning Point." Thinking English Grammar, ed. by Guy A. J. Tops, Betty Devriendt, and Steven Geukens. Peeters, 1999)

Restrictions on Passivization

"Not all verbs allow passivization to the same extent, as (57) shows.

(57) Tony likes films with lots of gratuitous violence. > Films with lots of gratuitous violence are liked (by Tony).

The NP following the verb in the active version of (57) cannot become the Subject of a passive clause. The same is true for the postverbal NP in (58) and (59), which contain the verbs suit and cost:

(58) That beret does not suit you, you know. > You are not suited by that beret, you know.

(59) Your private sight test costs £9. > £9 is cost by your private eye test.

Note also that certain types of Direct Object, for example, NPs headed by reflexive pronouns, cannot become the Subjects of passive clauses.

(60) He scarcely knew himself. > Himself was scarcely known by him."

(Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Passivization in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definitions and Examples of Passivization in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Passivization in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).