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The Past Perfect Passive of English Verbs

As one of the two grammatical voices in the English language, the passive allows the object of a sentence in the active voice to move into the subject position of a passive sentence. The past perfect passive is an English verb form that refers to verbs in the past tense, perfect aspect, indicative mood, and passive voice.

Formation of the Past Perfect Passive

Like the majority of conjugated English verbs, the past perfect is a periphrastic verb form, which means that a “phrase of two or more words performs a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the past perfect passive are formed by the past tense form of the verb have plus the past participle been followed by a past participle (regular or irregular). Note that only transitive verbs, or verbs that can take objects, and verbs with verb phrase complements may be conjugated into any passive voice. The verb phrase patterns for the past perfect passive are as follows:

  • first person singular – had + been + past participle – I had been seen by a doctor already.
  • second person singular – had + been + past participle – You had been exposed as a fraud.
  • third person singular – had + been + past participle – All the linens had been washed.
  • first person plural – had + been + past participle – We had been reported to the authorities.
  • second person plural – had + been + past participle – You had been discussed previously.
  • third person plural – had + been + past participle – The books had been dropped before.

Similar to other passive constructions, some Englishes also allow for the formation of the past perfect passive to include the past participle gotten in place of the past participle been. The verb phrase patterns for the past perfect passive with the auxiliary verb get are as follows:

  • first person singular – had + gotten + past participle – I had gotten punched in the chest.
  • second person singular – had + gotten + past participle – You had gotten kicked in the stomach.
  • third person singular – has + gotten + past participle – She had gotten smacked in the face.
  • first person plural – had + gotten + past participle – We had gotten promised raises.
  • second person plural – had + gotten + past participle – Had you gotten yelled at before?
  • third person plural – had + gotten + past participle – They had gotten introduced already.

Notice that the past tense of the verb have is irregular in all persons and numbers.

Uses of the Past Perfect Passive

Similar to the past perfect in the active voice, the past perfect passive expresses and emphasizes a previous action or state that began in the past and continued up to another point in the past and whose consequences have implications for that second point in time. Also like the past perfect active, the past perfect passive occurs most often in sentences that express a completed action that occurred before another action in the past or that express actions that began in the past and continued up until other actions in the past. For example:

  • The vase had just been knocked down when the earthquake happened.
  • Had verbs been studied before this class?
  • The tub had been cleaned before the sink.
  • Because a room had not been booked in advance, we were unable to find a hotel.

Just as with other forms of the passive, the main grammatical and semantic difference between the past perfect in the active voice and the past perfect in the passive voice is that the past perfect passive allows an object of an active sentence to appear in the subject position. For example, the use of the active voice in I had shaken the orange juice means that the subject is the pronoun I and the direct object is the noun phrase the orange juice. By changing the same sentence into the passive voice — The orange juice had been shaken by me — the original direct object the orange juice moves into the subject position. Through the use of the passive voice, an English speaker can emphasize an object from an active sentence and/or de-emphasize the subject from an active sentence.

The following visual illustrates the uses of the perfect aspect of English verbs:

Perfect Aspect of English Verbs

The past perfect passive expresses previous actions or states with additional past implications that began in the past and continued up to another specific point in the past while moving an object from an active sentence into the subject position.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.

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