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continuous forms of the passive


Abdul Weli from Somalia writes:

I would like to know more about the passive.
Most reference books say that the present perfect continuous tense has no passive form. Yet, at the same time, we have seen thes
e sentences:

'This building has been under construction for four months and has still not been completed yet.'

'This building has been being constructed for four months and has still not been completed yet.'

Roger Woodham replies: more questions

Your first sentence 'This building has been under construction...' sounds much more natural and would always be preferred to the second which sounds very clumsy.

Generally, we avoid using the continuous form of the passive with the future, present perfect, past perfect and future perfect, although present continuous and past continuous are quite common and sound quite natural in the passive voice.

The passive:

For the purpose of the chart below I have used the verb to clean, but there are obviously many other possibilities:

  Simple Continuous
Present: It is cleaned... It is being cleaned...
Past: It was cleaned.. It was being cleaned
Future: It will be cleaned... xxxx xxxx xxxx
Present Perfect: It has been cleaned... xxxx xxxx xxxx
Past Perfect: It had been cleaned... xxxx xxxx xxxx
Future Perfect: It will have been cleaned xxxx xxxx xxxx

Study these further examples of use and note how we avoid using the continuous form of the passive in the final four tenses listed:

  • This toilet at Terminal One is in frequent use and is cleaned every four hours. It is being cleaned now, so you'll have to use the one that is situated opposite the British Airways check-in desk.
  • My daughter's portrait was delivered to my house in London before I arrived home. I didn't expect this to happen as it was still being painted when I began my journey back.
  • You will be told when to board the plane in due course. An announcement will be made, don't worry. And one of my colleagues will be accompanying you all the way to Guadalajara. (NOT: You will be being accompanied...)
  • The initial enquiry into the accident has been completed.
    The full enquiry has been in progress (NOT: has been
    being conducted) for six months and will be completed by Christmas.
  • I had no idea why I had been chosen to represent my country. I was aware that people had been watching me (NOT: I had been being watched), but it still came as a surprise.
  • The inspection will have been carried out and the report will have been written by the time Charles gets back from America. When he gets on that plane in New York, the inspectors will be holding a press conference to report their findings (NOT: their findings will have been being reported)

We avoid using the continuous form of the passive in these examples by switching to the active voice or by using people to refer to no person in particular.

Note that in informal English we can also use you or they to refer to people in general and also in this way avoid using the passive. Compare the following:

  • They're going to build another runway at Heathrow Airport.
  • A new runway will be built at Heathrow Airport some time next year.

  • You can buy all kinds of exotic food in Soho.
  • All kinds of exotic food can be bought in Soho.

  • You have to leave all your valuables and jewellery in the lockers that they provide in the changing rooms. You can't take valuables into the sports centre itself.
  • All valuables and jewellery must be left in the lockers that are provided in the changing rooms. Valuables may not be taken into the sports centre itself.


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