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The Past Progressive Passive of English Verbs

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

Formation of the Past Progressive Passive

The past progressive passive, like the majority of conjugated verbs in English, is periphrastic. Periphrasis means that a “phrase of two or more words perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the past progressive passive are formed by the past tense form of the verb be plus the present particle being followed by a past participle (regular or irregular). Only transitive verbs, which are verbs that can take an object, and verbs with verb phrase complements may be conjugated into the passive voice. The verb phrase patterns for the past progressive passive are as follows:

  • first person singular – was + being + past participle – I was being put on hold by the operator.
  • second person singular – were + being + past participle – You were being trained for battle.
  • third person singular – was + being + past participle – Lunch was being ordered for us.
  • first person plural – were + being + past participle – We were being described as monsters.
  • second person plural – were + being + past participle – You were being prepared for college.
  • third person plural – were + being + past participle – Resources were being decreased incrementally.

As with other forms of the passive, some Englishes allow for the past progressive passive to be formed by the past tense form of the verb be plus the present participle getting followed by a past participle. The verb phrase patterns for the simple past passive with the auxiliary verb get are as follows:

  • first person singular – am + getting + past participle – I was getting thanked by the committee.
  • second person singular – are + getting + past participle – You were getting protected by bodyguards.
  • third person singular – is + getting + past participle – The envelope was getting sent to the leader.
  • first person plural – are + getting + past participle – We were getting awarded at the ceremony.
  • second person plural – are + getting + past participle – You were getting informed about the changes tonight.
  • third person plural – are + getting + past participle – The computer were getting connected yesterday.

As with the simple past passive, the past tense of the verb be is irregular in all persons and numbers.

Uses of the Past Progressive Passive

Like the past progressive in the active voice, the past progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the past or near future. Also like the past progressive active, the past progressive passive occurs most often in sentences that express (1) past actions that progressed in time in the past, (2) past actions that ended from an interruption including specific times, (3) past actions that occurred simultaneously, and (4) past actions or states that are repetitive and irritating. For example:

  • The truck was being washed by my husband.
  • Football was not being played last year.
  • I was constantly being bugged by our neighbor.
  • The furniture was being stored while the house was being painted.

The main difference in terms of grammar and semantics between the past progressive in the active voice and the past progressive in the passive voice is that the past progressive passive allows a speaker to move an object of an active sentence into the subject position of the passive sentence. For example, the use of the active voice in Employees were stealing office supplies means that the subject is the noun phrase Employees and the direct object is the noun phrase office supplies. By changing the same sentence into the passive voice — Office supplies was being stolen by employees — the original direct object office supplies moves into the subject position. The passive voice thus allows a speaker to emphasize the object in an active sentence and/or to de-emphasize the subject in an active sentence.

The following visual illustrates the uses of the progressive aspects of English verbs:

Progressive of English Verbs

The past progressive passive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states 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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