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The Simple Past Passive of English Verbs

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

Formation of the Simple Past Passive

As with most other conjugated verbs in the English language, the simple past passive is a periphrastic verb phrase, 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 simple past passive are formed by the past tense form of the verb be plus a past participle (regular or irregular). Note that only transitive verbs (verbs that can take direct objects and may take indirect objects) and verbs with verb phrase complements may be conjugated in the passive voice. The verb phrase patterns for the simple past passive are as follows:

  • first person singular – was + past participle – I was called into an emergency meeting.
  • second person singular – were + past participle – You were invited to the party.
  • third person singular – was + past participle – The tree was scorched by lightning.
  • first person plural – were + past participle – We were hated for our opinion.
  • second person plural – were + past participle – You were described as misfits.
  • third person plural – were + past participle – Many sad stories were reported by the evening news.

Some Englishes also allow for the simple past passive to be formed by the past tense form of the verb get plus a past participle in declarative sentences. The use of get as a passive auxiliary requires the addition of the do operator in interrogative sentences. The verb phrase patterns for the simple past passive with the auxiliary verb get are as follows:

  • first person singular – got + past participle – I got attacked by Japanese lady beetles.
  • second person singular – got + past participle – Did you get examined by a doctor?
  • third person singular – got + past participle – The dress got damaged in the wash.
  • first person plural – got + past participle – We got shaken by the earthquake.
  • second person plural – got + past participle – You got dealt a bad hand.
  • third person plural – got + past participle – Your clothes got washed this afternoon.

Notice that the past tense of the verb be is irregular in all persons and numbers but that the past tense of the verb get is identical in all persons and numbers.

Uses of the Simple Past Passive

Like the simple past in the active voice, the simple past passive expresses a discrete, completed, noncontinuous action or event in the past. Also like the simple past active, the simple past passive occurs most often in sentences that (1) express discrete actions in the past, (2) describe past habits and routines, (3) state past general facts and truths, (4) express past thoughts and feelings, and (5) express noncontinuous duration in the past. For example:

  • The appetizers were eaten before the party.
  • The door was unlocked every morning by the janitor.
  • The elderly man was loved by all his neighbors.
  • Our floors were scrubbed every Wednesday.

Just as with the difference between the simple present active and the simple present passive, the main grammatical and semantic difference between the simple past in the active voice and the simple past in the passive voice is that the simple past passive allows an object of an active sentence to appear in the subject position. For example, the use of the active voice in Dinosaurs roamed the world means that the subject is the noun phrase Dinosaurs and the direct object is the noun phrase the world. By changing the same sentence into the passive voice — The world was roamed by dinosaurs — the original direct object the world moves into the subject position. By using the passive voice, a 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 simple past of English verbs:

Simple Past of English Verbs

The simple past passive expresses discrete, completed, noncontinuous actions or events 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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