How to construct the perfect tenses in the passive voice?

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When you can’t properly situate or correlate different actions or events as they happen in time, it’s symptomatic of an inadequate grasp of the perfect tenses in the passive voice.

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This is evidently true in the case of Miss Mae, a member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum, who had this predicament: “I can’t remember anymore when and where exactly I got this idea, but I still hesitate every time I add ‘been’ to ‘has,’ ‘have,’ and ‘had.’ Should writers really refrain from doing so?”

In my reply to Miss Mae, I said that it’s most unfortunate when writers hesitate to use
the forms “has been,” “have been,” and “had been.” They are depriving themselves of the opportunity to use the English language to the fullest advantage when crafting narratives or expressing their thoughts and ideas. I likened the situation to using a word processor with not a few of its QWERTY keys dysfunctional or missing.

I think it’s clear that one’s trepidation about those three verbal auxiliaries indicates
unfamiliarity with—and lack of confidence in—the use of the perfect tenses in the passive voice.

By way of review, recall that “been” is the past participle of the verb “be,” and that “been” in tandem with the helping verb “have” serves as auxiliary to the past participle or progressive form of the operative verb. Altogether, they form the various perfect tenses in the passive voice.

At first the perfect tenses in the passive voice seem overwhelmingly complicated, but
they get much easier to understand when broken down into their five forms:

1. Past perfect in the passive voice = had + been + past participle of the verb—for action completed (finished or “perfected”) at some point in the past before something else happened.

Example: “The fancy car had been sold before we got to the auction house yesterday.”

2. Past perfect progressive in the passive voice = had + been + progressive form of the
verb—for continuous action completed at some point in the past.

Example: “The building had been rumbling for several minutes before it collapsed.”

3. Present perfect in the passive voice = has/have + been + progressive form of the
verb—for continuous action that was finished at some point in the recent past or that started in the past and continues to happen. Examples: “That truck has been rusting at our backyard so we decided just now to have it refurbished.” “The speculator is on a buying spree now that stock prices have been falling precipitously.”

4. Future perfect in the passive voice = will/shall + have + past participle of the verb—
for action that will have been completed (finished or “perfected”) at some point in the future.

Example: “By the time we get the funds to make the purchase next week, the promotional offer will have expired.” (For both a singular and a plural subject, “will have/shall have” applies.)

5. Future perfect progressive in the passive voice = will/shall + have been + progressive  form of the verb—for continuous action that will be completed at some point in the future.

Example: “When you visit us in Stockholm in 2016, we will have been enjoying permanent resident status for almost a year.”

Take note that in the perfect tenses in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence will

always be the receiver of the action of the verb, never its doer, and the verb will have to be intransitive—meaning that it doesn’t have or can’t take a direct object. Keep in mind, though, that some verbs can either be transitive or intransitive depending on how they are used. To keep out of trouble when doing past perfect constructions in the passive voice, you must develop adequate sensitivity for figuring this out with the verb you are using.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Follow me at Twitter.com  @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

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5 Comments

  1. Rosauro Feliciano on

    Mr. Carillo I appreciate it very much is you can please continue on this perfect tenses as I’m used to express my thought on perfect tenses, which in some instances I might be wrong. An example is: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 if (had) he was not sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.” Is this correct sentence? I really appreciate it you can reply through my email address. Shall I use “if” or “had”?

    • Rosauro: That sentence is in the past-perfect conditional form of the passive voice, and it can be correctly constructed in two ways. Using “if”: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 if he had not been sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.” Or using “had”: “My son would have been an alumnus of the PMA class of 2007 had he not been sent to West Point after the plebe year at PMA.” I find the construction using “had” better sounding and more elegant so it’s my personal preference. For more about sentences of this type, check out my Forum for this posting of mine: “Do better than a calculated guess in handling conditional sentences” in my Forum (http://tinyurl.com/l8mjhl8).