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Using Past Participles As Adjectives vs Passive Voice

It’s not my job to explain what English Passive Voice is all about, and how it’s constructed. After all, once you’re reading my blog, most likely you fall under the category of advanced English speakers, and you already know that Passive Voice is formed by using the verb ‘to be’ followed by Past Participle of the main verb – “A huge amount of money was stolen from our shop today”. Passive voice is used when the object is unknown or it’s irrelevant to know who’s behind the action; all emphasis is put on the action itself – “money was stolen”.

The very same English Tenses are used in the Passive Voice as in the Active Voice – Simple Tenses and Perfect Tenses – and the usage of both Passive and Active Voices is governed by the same rules. So, “Someone seals up the box” and “The box is sealed up” (general statements) are equivalent expressions in the same way as “Someone has sealed up the box” and “The box has been sealed up” (describing a finished action) are.

I noticed a long time ago, however, that in conversational English it’s not as straightforward as it may seem if you just look at the Passive and Active Tenses comparison table.

I would hear quite often that the Simple Present form in the Passive Voice“The letter is written”is used instead of the Present Perfect one“The letter has been written” – despite the fact that the proper way of expressing the completeness of the process would be by using the Present Perfect Tense…

This phenomenon was bothering me for a long time because I used to translate from my native language when speaking English and on many occasions I just couldn’t decide which of the two options I should go for 😡

In reality I would almost never hear native English speakers use Perfect Tenses to describe finished actions in Passive Voice, and phrases like “it has been done” and “it’s been sorted” would become “it’s done” and “it’s sorted”. I would have thought that they should at least use Simple Past – “it was done” and “it was sorted” when referring to completed tasks because to me “it is done” would rather refer to an ongoing action like the Present Continuous Tense – “it’s being done”.

Eventually I was driven mad by trying to figure out the differences between the two Passive Voice Tenses – Simple Present and Present Perfect!

Let’s take the following Simple Present Passive Voice example – “The customers are contacted during working hours because our service desk operates from 9AM to 5PM.” It’s a general statement about the fact that customers are normally contacted during a certain time-frame, and it can be paraphrased using the Active Voice in the following way: “We contact our customers during working hours…”

So far, so good.

Now look at the following sentence – “All customers who have fallen into arrears are contacted, what should I do next?” It’s obvious that the action of contacting the customers is complete, so it kind of calls for a Perfect Tense – “customers have been contacted”, right? Yet this is exactly the type of spoken English everyone around me kept using, and I just couldn’t get my head around ituntil I found out about Past Participle being used as an adjective

“Customers are contacted”, it appears, isn’t really a Passive Voice grammar construct. The word ‘contacted’ in this case is an adjective, and it simply describes the subject – ‘customers’!

Very simple, yet I kept racking my brains for a long time trying to figure out why Simple Present in Passive Voice (which in fact wasn’t Passive Voice at all!) is used instead of Perfect Present.

I just hadn’t made the simple connection between other obvious adjectives – such as ‘bored’ or ‘excited’ – and the ones that looked like typical Past Participles, so I always assumed that they must be part of a Passive Voice grammar construct!

So for instance, if you say “He is bored”, it’s the same Active Voice construct as “He is contacted” and there’s no need to overcomplicate the matters and see the Passive Voice where it’s not. Sure, you CAN say “He has been contacted” and it would covey a very similar message. However, both Perfect Tense in the Passive Voice and Past Participle Adjective describe a complete action, so in reality it’s not about native English speakers substituting Perfect Tenses in the Passive Voice with Simple Present.

It’s just that nearly every complete action can be described using an adjective which is formed by adding an ending ‘-ed’ to a verb, and it’s identical to how a Past Participle of regular English verbs is formed!

I would say that native English speakers use Past Participles as adjectives instead of Passive Voice simply for the sake of convenience and simplicity; it’s just easier to say “the package is wrapped” than “the package has been wrapped”.

But should we really care about what grammar construct is used? Does it make any difference as far as we can explain ourselves properly in English? I think you know my answer!

I warmly suggest you stop analyzing grammar aspects of the English language when you speak, and you’ll find it much easier to communicate with others, and your English fluency will come along big time.

Personally I speak following my gut feeling, and I can’t always explain why I say one or another thing a certain way. The funny thing is, the more I try to put my finger on it, the bigger the chance of me starting to hesitate and become unable to express myself properly.

Now another example of how you can use Past Participle as an Adjective.

The proper way of saying that all players have received their cards in a game of poker is “the cards have been dealt”. It’s a typical phrase used among card players and gamblers all around the word, and in this case there shouldn’t be any doubt on which grammar construct to use.

However, if I hadn’t heard that phrase before, I could actually say the same thing using a much simpler phrase – “the cards are dealt”. As I previously said, there is a slight difference between those two phrases. You’re most likely to come across the latter one – “the cards are dealt” – in general card game rule descriptions, but the former one – “the cards have been dealt” – is used when talking about a specific game. Having said “The cards are dealt, let’s begin the game!”, however, I wouldn’t be making a fool out of myself because it doesn’t sound that wrong.

Any English speaker will understand what I meant, and even if I use the Past Participle ‘dealt’ in a phrase that is most commonly said in the Passive voice, it’s still understandable!

So if you’ve been having similar doubts when using the Passive Voice and you feel overwhelmed whenever you try to implement those Perfect Tenses in the Passive Voice, you can rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with speaking in slightly simplified English and using Past Participles as adjectives ❗ Of course, I don’t deny that it’s necessary to be familiar with all aspects of the English Passive Voice because it’s an essential part of the English language around us.

When writing, you’ll probably put more thought into choosing which Grammar Tense to use, so when e-mailing an update of the current order status to your manager you’ll probably write “The order in question has been packed and we’re waiting on further instructions in relation to delivery date”.

When having a real-life conversation, however, you’re perfectly fine to say – “The order in question is packed…” – and, as a stated previously, that’s the way all native English speakers are speaking in everyday situations!

Robby

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • You’re welcome! 😉

  • sri

    Thanks Robby.

  • Hi Sri,
    Yes, that’s what this type of sentence means, and in this particular instance “I want this letter typed” means that I want someone to type this letter for me.
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • sri

    Hi Robby,
    subject + verb + noun/pronoun + past participle
    I want this letter typed.
    does the above sentence mean somebody type the letter for me ?
    the above pattern is just like “he had his suit cleaned”(somebody cleaned for him).
    The sentences in the above pattern always mean “somebody does something for subject”.
    sri.

  • No problem, you’re welcome! 😉