In English, the passive is expressed by the use of an auxiliary and past participle. The agent is demoted to an optional by-phrase, and the theme/patient is promoted to the subject position.

Rome destroyed Carthage –––> Carthage was destroyed (by Rome)

In other languages, such as Latin, the passive is expressed synthetically: amare 'to love', amari 'to be loved'.

Recently, I've heard of an older way English expressed the (progressive) passive, the passival:

The tooth is pulling out (by the barber)

cf. The tooth is being pulled out (by the barber)

Are there any other ways the passive is expressed? Are certain ways/constructions more common than others?


5 Answers 5


You may want to start with an excellent review by Leonid Kulikov. 2011. Voice typology. In The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Typology, ed. J. J. Song. Oxford: OUP, esp. pp. 374-380.

One of the best books on the passive voice is Siewierska, Anna. 1984. The passive: A comparative linguistic analysis. London: Croom Helm.


According to this WALS page "Passive Constructions", there are five necessary properties of a passive construction.

  1. it contrasts with another constuction, the active;
  2. the subject of the active corresponds to a non-obligatory oblique phrase of the passive or is not overtly expressed;
  3. the subject of the passive, if there is one, corresponds to the direct object of the active;
  4. the construction is pragmatically restricted relative to the active;
  5. the construction displays some special morphological marking of the verb.

Using these tests, there are only those two ways to mark the passive: synthetic (some kind of marking on the verb which is different from the active, like Latin) and periphrastic or analytical (using some form of auxiliary and the participal form of the verb, like English).

The linked pages also listed several ways that languages which do not have passive can have constructions which manifest some (but not all) of the five properties, for example

  • Agent demotion by simply omitting the agent
  • Agent demotion by replacing the agent with an impersonal subject (like "on" in French)
  • One of the closest I found is the use of the inverse construction in Plains Cree (Algonquian; Canada). The inverse construction is similar to the passive because the patient is more topical than the agent. However, in the inverse the agent retains some topicality, is still obligatory and still controls the verbal agreement (meaning the agent is somewhat still the subject, hence the construction isn't really passive).
sēkih-ēw   nāpēw    atim-wa
scare-dir  man.prox dog-obv
‘The man scares the dog.’ 

Direct construction, 'man' is the proximate (the more topical participant), and 'dog' is the obviate (the less topical participant).

sēkih-ik   nāpēw-a  atim
scare-inv  man-obv  dog.prox
‘The man scares the dog.’

Inverse construction, 'man' (agent) is the obviate and 'dog' (patient) is the proximate

If you are into it, there are other examples in the linked page.


Among languages that use the auxiliary strategy, there are different verbs that can be recruited as a passive auxiliary. It's not always "to be." So for instance in English, get can also be used as a passive auxiliary. In Italian there's a passive formed with venire 'come.' In Norwegian you use bli 'become.'


I'm sure these concepts are mentioned in the books recommended by Alex B, but there are some other related constructions you might find interesting. For instance, many ergative/absolutive languages have a construction that's called the "antipassive", in which the ergative argument becomes absolutive, and the absolutive argument becomes an oblique (kind of lowering of the agent to a patient grammatical role, and a patient to oblique shift). Additionally, one could conceptualize passives as a subtype of the applicative-type construction, well documented in African languages, in which various morphemes shift around other case/thematic relations. Finally, I recommend google scholaring focus argument constructions, often seen in Polynesian languages (and they go crazy in the Formosan languages), in which there are various NP "slots" arguments go into, and verbal morphology tells which slot gets which thematic role (arguably a particular flavor of a head-marking Baker-style "polysynthesis" language)


Spanish uses the reflexive for this:

No se permite entrar. "It is not permitted to enter".

Literally "It doesn't permit itself to enter".

  • 2
    While you’re right, Spanish also has a full passive, which uses ser with a past participle. The Spanish use of se for its ‘half-passives’ is fairly interesting. I recommend Usos de «se» by J.A. Molino Redondo, 1988, ISBN 84-7143-018-5. Compare ‘Juan vende objectos usados’ → ‘Objetos usados son vendidos por Juan’; ‘Se vende objectos usados’ → ‘Se venden objectos usados’; ‘Venden objetos usados’ → ‘Objetos usados son vendidos’. Some are impersonal expressions; some are full passives. Most are not actually reflexive, even if they have se in them. ‘Voz media’ is neither active nor passive.
    – tchrist
    Jan 24, 2012 at 16:58

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