≡ Menu

Start Improving Your Spoken English Today! Sign Up NOW!

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

P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Денис Пикущий

    Now it’s clear. Thank you so much)

  • Hi Denis,
    1. I saw the broken window – you saw a specific broken window as indicated by the definite article “the”.

    2. I saw the window broken – you established the fact that the window was broken.

    5. I saw (that) the window was broken – pretty much the same as 2.
    So, as you can guess, without “being” you can’t really express the fact that you saw someone breaking the window!
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • Денис Пикущий

    Coming back to my question, now I have more sentences and would like to find out the exact meaning:
    1. I saw the broken window. (broken – adjective)
    2. I saw the window broken. (it can be adjective. But can it have meaning that you saw how someone broke it?)
    3. I saw the window being broken.(here, no doubts, you saw how someone broke it )
    4. I saw (that) the window was being broken.(also someone broke it )
    5. I saw (that) the window was broken. (here I have no assumption. can it have both meanings?(adjective and passive action))

  • No problem my friend! 😉

  • Денис Пикущий

    Thank you for quick reply and awesome blog.

  • Hi Denis,
    And thanks for the comment!
    Now, let me assure you – in real life when someone says “my car is broken”, they would ONLY use it to describe the fact that’s it’s broken down.
    If someone wanted to say that it’s usually broken down, they would say something along the lines of “My car’s been broken down for years”.
    And even if someone was to use “my car is broken” to describe the fact it’s been broken for a long time, they would always use some context to reveal that meaning: “My car? My car is broken! It’s been like that for ages because I just don’t have enough money to fix it!”
    So basically in real life it’s the context that’s going to reveal the actual meaning of a phrase or a sentence, people won’t say a phrase just on its own leaving you to figure out what exactly it means!
    Hope this clarifies the matter,
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • Денис Пикущий

    Thank you for a clear explanation. But there’s also little misunderstanding. For example the sentence “My car is broken” can stand for “My car has been broken”, but can it be also understood as “My car is ussualy broken (or “My car is ussualy broken down”)” like a general fact? Thank you.

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    Certainly sir ! No longer i will not analyze word by word English. it’s big hurdle in learning English !

  • Thanks, I’m glad you find my blog helpful on your journey to English fluency!

  • No, they’re not describing him. It’s just the way people say – “He is gone”, “He has gone” just on its own actually sounds a bit awkward. The key here is not to try to analyze all these small details – just accept that “He’s gone” is the way to say that a person has gone away, the more you analyze, the worse it’ll get: http://englishharmony.com/analysis/
    Cheers,
    Robby

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    Sir, your blog is a treasure of English learning ! very easily things will come to our perception.

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    In cricket after batsman got out, instead of saying he has gone ; they ( commentators ) say he is gone. why they use this phrase. Are they describing him ?

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    This doubt has been in my mind since long time. finally i sought it out by you. Thank you for clarifying my doubt sir. it’s great way to get connected with you sir.

  • Both are correct! Let’s put it this way – when writing, the first sentence would most likely be used, but conversationally you’d probably hear the second one being used more often.

  • Thanks for the comment, and I’m really glad my article has helped you to realize that you shouldn’t be analyzing the grammar aspect of English too deeply! 😉

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    hello sir , I have little confusion on these following two sentences . Please clarify them sir. The Thief has been arrested or The thief is arrested. Which one is correct.

  • Totayya Viraktamath

    Dear Robby sir, I am an Indian and I am a Kannada medium student. i was not able to differentiate between simple present and present perfect passive form. Many thanks for your detailed description. I would always get confused which tense to choose while speaking. Now my confusions have been resolved over which passive tense to choose. very beautifully you have explained differences between to Passives and past participle as adjectives. “stop analyzing grammar aspects” I liked this statement very much. Good work sir.

  • Thanks Moe, I really appreciate the fact that you find my blog useful, thanks for the positive feedback! 😉

  • Moe Said

    Hi Robby, I’m a native Englsih speaker and I’ve recently started teaching English full time. I just have to say I’m really enjoying your blog, so much that this is the first time for me to even leave a comment on someone’s blog. Needless to say, your articles have helped me understand some unexplainable topics in English and I especially like the ones on ‘not analyzing every single grammar detail’. Keep up the good work!

  • No problem, you’re welcome!

  • sri

    Thaks a lot Mr. Robby

  • sri

    Thanks a lot for clearing my doubts Mr.Robby.

  • Hi Sri,

    The e-mail is support @ englishharmony.com

    Regards,

    Robby

  • “Would have” can also be used when telling about things that actually happened, it’s similar to using “used to”.

    Here’s an example – “Years ago I would have stayed up all night but now that I’ve gotten a bit older I go to bed early.”

    Another example phrase – “I would have thought” – it simply means “I thought”: “You can still get the original iPhone in Apple shops?? I would have thought they stopped selling them ages ago!”

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Yes, you’re right in saying that the very word “SHOULD” is an indicator of an action that hasn’t taken place but should have been done. So, the sentence in the newspaper doesn’t really reflect the actual situation and is a bit misleading. Speaking of what you read on my blog – well, I’d say both SHOULD or WOULD can be used, it sounds alright either way.

    And please allow me to point out once more that you’re clearly over-analyzing things; in real life we don’t always go by the book. From what I can see, you’re grammar skills are quite well developed, so I’d say just get out there and speak with others and do loads of spoken practice and you’ll be fine! 😉

    Regards,

    Robby

  • sri

    Please give some explanation Robby.

    Can I have your Email Id please ?

    Thanks and Regards,
    Sri

  • sri

    Thanks Mr. Robby.

    We use SHOULD + HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE for things like : Eg.

    ‘YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING ‘ = YOU DIDN’T DO IT BUT IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

    I have a doubt on the following sentence which I have taken from TIMES OF INDIA news paper.

    The alleged conversation took place in the house of a mediator and the money too SHOULD HAVE BEEN BROUGHT by the mediator.

    According to the conversation in the news paper the money was there in the mediator’s house.

    I have one more sentence which I have taken from your blog.

    ‘And if you are anything like me, by now you SHOULD HAVE ARRIVED to the same conclusion or else you wouldn’t be reading this, right ?

    In the above two sentences it is clear that something has happened.

    Can we use SHOULD + HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE in this way ?

    Kind Regards,
    Sri

  • sri

    We use Would + Have + Past participle when we imagine situations or actions in the past.

    I have a doubt in the following sentence(not imagined) which was used for past tense. I have taken the following sentence from TIMES OF INDIA news paper.

    The same house would have quoted a rent of Rs 6000-7000 two years ago and not more than Rs 4500 10 years ago.

    The sentence is telling about the fact that was there two years ago.

    Can we use Would + Have + Past Participle in this way ?

  • You’re totally correct Sri, for some reason when I was writing the response to your comment I was over-analyzing the whole thing…

    Yes, your’e right in saying that “I’ve been opposed” is Passive Voice and “opposed” there is an adjective. To make it an Active Voice construct I would have to be re-worded the following way “I’ve been opposing”.

    Anyhow, all this just goes to show that analyzing the English language from the grammar standpoint serves NO PURPOSE.

    What you have to learn is how to USE the phrase instead of analyzing WHAT IT IS.

    Please read more on this here: http://englishharmony.com/analysis/ and also here: http://englishharmony.com/dont-ask-why-questions/

    Btw – I’ll write an article on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned! 😉

    Regards,

    Robby

  • sri

    please clarify my doubt Mr. Robby

  • sri

    I mean both(Opposed and Engaged) are used as adjectlives in the sentences.

  • sri

    The passive construct of Passive for present perfect is (Have + Been + Past Participle), but for adjectives also we use the same construct. According to the example in dictionary which I mentioned in my previous comment both the words that I asked you yesterday(Opposed and Engaged) seem to be Adjectives. Please clarify Robby Kukurs.

  • sri

    Before adjective we use BE form like
    WE ARE HAPPY.
    In the above sentence ARE is BE form.
    In the Dictionary you can see the word OPPOSED example.
    They are totally Opposed to abortion.
    Here ARE in the above sentence is BE which is used before the an adjective and the same can be used for passive but this example I have taken it from Oxford Dictionary.

  • sri

    BEEN is used before an adjective in the present perfect tense.
    BEEN is the past participle of BE.

  • sri

    Robby for present perfect (HAVE + Past participle)
    but in the sentence BEEN is there(which is used before an adjective).
    I have taken an exaple from the Oxford Dictionary for the word Opposed(adjective).

    Eg. They are totally opposed to abortion.
    In the above sentence the word opposed is an adjective.

  • “… governments have been engaged…” – past participle (because it stands in the sentence as part of the Present Perfect grammar construct HAVE + BEEN + Past Participle)

    Same story with the second sentence – it’s also a past participle.

  • sri

    thanks Robby
    I have few doubts please clarify.
    The two state governments have been engaged in an ugly spat.
    Is word engaged in the above sentence is an adjective or past participle.
    Gulati and USA have been opposed to Blatter.
    Is the word opposed in the above sentence is an adjective or past participle.

  • The thing is – in the simple sentence “he’s bored” the word “bored” in an adjective. If you want to see how it would act in the Passive Voice, you’d have to change the context to something like “He’s easily bored by by the kind of TV shows I’m watching” – in this case “bored by smth” is the indicator of the Passive Voice.

  • sri

    If ‘he is bored’ is active then what is passive

  • You’re welcome!

  • vinu joseph

    Thank you very much 🙂

  • My guess is adjective, but I’m not 100% sure. Whatever it is though, make sure to learn how to USE this particular grammar construct and you’ll be fine! 😉

  • vinu joseph

    Hello Sir,
    Could you please tell me what is ‘known’ in the following sentence,an adjective or a past participle? Africa is known for elephants.

  • With all due respect, I don’t agree with that. Such grammar constructs are used in my work among native English speakers all the time, and they’re all well educated folks! These kind of expressions are simply localisms – any language has them and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them!

  • stoplyin7722

    It’s only acceptable in certain parts of the country among certain types of people. For instance, saying “I would have went” will brand you as uneducated.

  • Yes, it’s conversationally totally acceptable; I’ve also noticed a lot of different speech patterns such as: “I would have went” and similar used by native speakers.

  • stoplyin7722

    I have noticed that parts of the northeast do not use the present perfect tense. For instance, instead of saying “I have known him for a long time,” they will say “I know him for a long time.”

  • P J Sujanth Kumaar

    He is bored is grammatically passive. it means something or some body bored him.

  • No, “Active” mustn’t be changed to “Passive” in this context! That’s the whole point of this article – it LOOKS like Passive voice, but it isn’t!

  • Kwanbhan

    …..if you say “He is bored”, it’s the same Active Voice construct as “He is contacted””Active” must be changed to PassiveVery useful informationThank you very much.