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Past continuous – passive

There are several reasons as to why we use the passive voice in English. In these notes, we’re going to focus on the past continuous in the passive voice and its elaborations. Generally, we use the passive when the focus is on the action and NOT on WHO or WHAT is performing the action.

Construction: was/were + being + past participle 

Example verb: call

I was being called   We were being called
You were being called You (guys) were being called
  He/she/it was being called       They were being called

The agent is unknown. We don’t know who or what is the agent

  • An email was being written by our supply team. (we don’t know the contents of the email, neither its transmitter or sender, only that is an email). 
  • An unidentified flying object was being recorded by many observers from around the globe. (the subject is unknown because we don’t know about the ‘unidentified object’). 

We use the passive to emphasise the subject 

  • I myself was being held captive there in a concentration camp. (The emphasis is on ‘myself’). 
  • The guards were the ones being incarcerated by their own allies.

We use the passive to talk about general truths

  • The man was always being told what to do.
  • The native peoples of North America were always being dragged into the battle against the colonisers.

We can use the passive if we want to be unclear or vague about the subject  

  • All I can tell you is that a ship was being scheduled to land.
  • Letters were being written to the author.

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

We use the passive when the subject is irrelevant

(We don’t care who or what has caused the action to be)

  • Someone from their team was being brought to the resort to resolve the issue. Whoever the ‘someone’ is, is irrelevant in this context). 
  • I am not sure who exactly was being sought after by the police.

We use the passive in a more formal atmosphere like a thesis or an important piece of writing, especially scientifically speaking

  • The movements in the middle east at that time in the past were being halted by forces from the north.
  • Sodium was being dissolved into the liquid for three minutes.

English Verbs – The Complete Guide

Lesson #33: Past continuous – passive

Explanation

Construction: was/were + being + past participle (read, seen)

Example verb: make

I was being made   We were being made
You were being made   You (guys) were being made
He/she/it was being made        They were being made

Context

  • Last Friday I was being told by Jennifer, my colleague, to be quiet,1 which to be honest, I found to be quite rude2 of her.
  • What was she actually saying?3
  • Um,4 she came to my desk and told me quite abruptly and in a harsh tone to ‘be quiet’.
  • Has she apologised?
  • Well, yes, she did apologise to me yesterday. She told me that she was being put through a lot of stress5 and she regretted using such a harsh tone with me.
  • Sometimes these things happen. If she was being handed a lot of pressure, then it’s excusable.6
  • Yes, I get your point.7 You’re right.8 I’ll forget it ever happened.9
  • Good for you.

Analysis

  1. I was being told by Jennifer, my colleague, to be quiet. ‘Was being told’ is a passive construction in the past continuous. The past continuous usually has a continuous form in the past. That continuity being ‘being told by Jennifer’. The emphasis is on ‘I’.
  2. I found it to be quite rude. The adjective in this sentence is ‘rude’ and it goes with the auxiliary verb ‘be’. We always use ‘be’ with adjectives.
  3. What was she actually saying? This is the past continuous in the active form ‘was saying’. In the passive it would be: what was being said by her?
  4. Um. This word is an interjection. Interjections have zero grammatical purpose and can be inserted in most places of a sentence or question. Other such interjections are hmm, ach, err, ah etc.
  5. She told me that she was being put through a lot of stress. ‘was being put through’ is the past continuous in the passive voice. ‘Put through’ means ‘endure’ and the past participle of ‘put’ is ‘put’.
  6. If she was being handed a lot of pressure, then it’s excusable. ‘Was being handed’ is the past continuous in the passive voice. The emphasis is on ‘she’.
  7. I get your point. This is another way of saying ‘I understand’.
  8. You’re right. Don’t confuse ‘you’re’ with ‘your’. The latter being the possessive adjective and the former being the contracted from of ‘you are’. I.e. You’re welcome or you are welcome. Possessive adjective: I like your dress. Is that your book?
  9. I’ll forget it ever happened. ‘I’ll forget’ is the future simple (active form). Remember, we use the future simple (will + infinitive) to talk about the future, predictions, promises, and instant reactions. Here, an instant reaction is being expressed. The action of ‘forgetting’. Another example: Could you help me, please? Yes, I will help you right away.  

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