Definitions and Examples of Pseudo-Passives in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In English grammar, the pseudo-passive is a verb construction that has a passive form but either an active meaning or no grammatically active equivalent. Also called a prepositional passive.

As Kuno and Takami discuss below, "It has been well recognized in the literature that not all pseudo-passive sentences are acceptable."

Linguist Otto Jespersen observed that the pseudo-passive construction developed during the period of Middle English, after the merging of the accusative case and the dative case.

Examples and Observations

  • "The high-priced concert-and-dinner tickets were selling well, but seats in the house were selling slowly."
    (Rena Fruchter, Dudley Moore: An Intimate Portrait. Ebury Press, 2005)
  • "Gita felt that she no longer existed except as a sodden, aching huddle under the rock, waiting to be rained on, a creature utterly isolated from the rest of the human race."
    (Terry Morris, "The Life-Giving Power of Love." Good Housekeeping, December 1969)
  • "I came to the station meaning to tell you everything then. But we had started with a lie, and I got frightened."
    (E.M. Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905)
  • "Juliet's bed was empty, too, though it had been slept in."
    (Linda Winstead Jones, The Sun Witch. Berkley Sensation, 2004)

Ambiguity in Pseudo-Passives

  • "Some passive sentences are ambiguous, especially in the past tense, e.g. The job was finished at two o'clock. If the meaning is 'By the time I arrived at two o'clock it was already finished' this example can be regarded as a pseudo-passive, with a statal interpretation. This contrasts with a dynamic central passive construction where an agent is supplied, and where the verb can be part of a progressive construction: The job was finished at two o'clock by Bill.
    The job was finished at two o'clock by the painters." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)}

Acceptable and Unacceptable Pseudo-Passives

  • "Pseudo-passive sentences are those involving intransitive verbs and prepositions, taking the pattern of NP (subject) + be (get) + ____en + Preposition (+ by NP). They are divided into two types; one type, as exemplified in (1a, 1b), involves intransitive verbs (sleep, write) and prepositions (in, on) which are part of adjuncts (in that bed, on this desk), and the other, as exemplified in (1c), involves what are often called 'prepositional verbs' (refer to):
    (1a) That bed was slept in by Napoleon. (Riemsdijk, 1978: 218)
    (1b) This desk should not be written on.
    (1c) This book has been frequently referred to. "It has been well recognized in the literature that not all pseudo-passive sentences are acceptable. Compare (1a-1c) with the following examples:
    (2a) *Boston was arrived in late at night.
    (cf. John arrived in Boston late at night.)
    (2b) *The operation was died before by John.
    (cf. John died before the operation.)
    (2c) *The sea was sunk into by a yacht.
    (cf. A yacht sank into the sea.) Sentences (2a-2c), unlike (1a-1c), are all unacceptable to most speakers."
    (Susumu Kuno and Ken-ichi Takami, Functional Constraints in Grammar: On the Unergative–Unaccusative Distinction. John Benjamins, 2004)

Literal vs. Figurative Meanings

  • "Sometimes a prepositional passive is possible only in the literal, not the metaphorical meaning of a verb (see [76a] and [76b]), infrequent V-P combinations are odd in the passive, and the prepositional passive is also more restricted with respect to modality.
    (76a) She sat on the egg for three weeks. / The egg was sat on for three weeks.
    (76b) She sat on the committee for three weeks. / *The committee was sat on for three weeks. [O]ne could say that in the metaphorical reading the NP following the preposition is less affected by the event than in the literal reading. Prepositional passives thus are an important indicator of the semantic content of passivization. The more the object of a preposition resembles the prototypical object of a verb, the more felicitous is passivization."
    (Anja Wanner, Deconstructing the English Passive. Walter de Gruyter, 2009)

Pseudo-Passives and Participles

  • "[One] type of predicate to be considered is formed with past participles derived from verbs of motion and body posture. Though these participles have a passive form, they have active semantics similar to the present participle (and have therefore been referred to as 'pseudo-passive' constructions; cf. Klemola 1999, 2002). Thus at least some of them are in competition with the present participles of the same verbs. The class includes the items sat, stood, laid, headed, sprawled, crouched, huddled, hunched, lolled, perched, squatted, steered, and stooped. For present purposes, two types of pseudo-passives are worth looking at, which are distinguished by their geographical distribution.
  • "The main representatives of the first group . . . are the constructions be sat and be stood (which are in competition with their synonyms be sitting and be standing; cf. Wood 1962: 206, 220). They originate in non-standard varieties of Northern and Midland BrE (cf. Klemola 1999, 2002), but are now spreading southwards and into the British standard.
    (12) I was sat/sitting in the front passenger seat. . . . In stark contrast, AmE shows no signs whatsoever of taking over the British innovation (cf. also Algeo 2006: 34).
    "The second group of pseudo-passives is an American innovation. Examples are provided by the pairs be headed/heading and be sprawled/sprawling . . ..
    "The data . . . indicate that AmE is . . . in the lead as regards the replacement of sprawling by the pseudo-passive sprawled, which was relatively advanced even in the early twentieth century. By the turn of the twenty-first century, BrE has, however, caught up substantially."
    (Günter Rohdenburg and Julia Schlüter, "New Departures." One Language, Two Grammars?: Differences Between British and American English, ed. by G. Rohdenburg and J. Schlüter. Cambridge University Press, 2009)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Pseudo-Passives in English." ThoughtCo, Feb. 12, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, February 12). Definitions and Examples of Pseudo-Passives in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Pseudo-Passives in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).