Passive Constructions

In English, the use of the passive construction is fairly common, far more than in some other languages I am familiar with, such as Greek. Perhaps the way we form it lends itself to easy use.

We form it in English through the use of the verb be as an auxillary in the tense we wish to express, plus the past participle of the main verb. Consider the examples:

The book was read

Water was spilt

This type of construction is far from unique to English. If we look at Romance languages, we find exactly the same form. Compare:

Italian                                           French

Il libro era letto                             Le livre était lu

l’acqua era versata                      l’eau était versé

Just as in the English examples, the passive has been formed using the verb be (essere in Italian, être in French) in the appropriate tense, in this case the imperfect, followed by the past participle of the main verb; read (leggere and lire respectively), and spill (versare and verser).


Moving on to Spanish and Portuguese, we see that the verb be is used to form the passive:

Spanish                                    Portuguese

El libro fue leído                     O livro foi lido

El agua fue derramada        A água foi derramada


In these cases, fue/ foi are the past tenses of the verb be.

Now, let’s compare this with a Slavic language construction. The passive in Slovene is viewed as more cumbersome, and the meaning is more likely to be expressed using an active form, perhaps using a generic subject for the verb if the focus is to be placed on the action or the object.


Knjiga je bila prebrana – the book was read.

Here, the auxiliary used is biti, which means be, with the main verb in the passive past participle form. However, this is a rare form. A more common form would be:

Voda se je razlila – water was spilt

In this case, the verb is in a reflexive form. This is very interesting, as it brings me on to another language, it is almost like a bridge between different language groupings, as the next language we shall look at does not use the verb be as an auxiliary to form the passive, but instead uses a form that can be both reflexive and passive. It is as though Slovene has taken the best of both worlds!

So let’s take a look at Greek. As I stated in the previous paragraph, Modern Greek uses a verb form for the passive that can be both reflexive and passive. It is sometimes known as the “mediopassive”, in a literal translation of its name in Greek.

το βιβλίο διαβάστηκε (to vivlio diavastike) – the book was read

το νερό χύθηκε (to nero hithike) – the water was spilt


In these examples, the verbs are in the passive/ reflexive conjugation, in the relevant tense. No auxiliary verb has been used and there is no past participle. Here is how it is formed:

Active verb: διαβάζω  – Passive verb: διαβάζεται – Past tense suffix added to basic verb stem: διαβά -στηκε


There are many situations where the passive would not be used in Greek where it is used in English, and of course, there are passive constructions in Greek which would sound unnatural in English.

This brings us onto an interesting point regarding Spanish. Another way of expressing the passive in Spanish is what is known as pasiva con “se”. Here are the examples:

El libro se leyó

El agua se derramó

This form is actually more commonly used than the examples previously mentioned, and the intriguing thing about them is that this is actually a reflexive form! Does this mean that the language lends itself more to a reflexive form, given that this is the structure that seems to be preferred? Or is it easier to use? Perhaps it’s simply that it rings better in Spanish ears!


Finally, we shall move on to Welsh, where we find an intriguing means of expressing the passive. In Welsh, there is an auxiliary verb used, but it is not the equivalent of the verb be. It is cael, which might translate as get, have or obtain. But that is not the only interesting aspect. Welsh also uses possessive pronouns before the main verb. Let’s look at the examples:


Cafodd y llyfr ei ddarllen –  the book was read

Cafodd y dwr ei gollwng – the water was spilt

In these examples, the verb cael is in the past tense cafodd, with the pronoun ei before the verb-nouns darllen and gollwng; read and spill. In these cases, ei would correspond to the English its, which means that literally in Welsh the sentence is “the book gets its reading” or “the water has its spilling.”

It would be interesting to examine how this meaning is conveyed in a non Indo-European language and see how it differs.

One thought on “Passive Constructions

  1. Pingback: Four blogs on language and linguistics | Sentence first

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