In this article, we’ll take a close look at the prepositional passive in English.
What Is the Prepositional Passive?
The prepositional passive is very similar to the regular passive in English, except that the verb is linked to a preposition, often called a phrasal verb. In the prepositional passive, the subject of the sentence corresponds to the object of a preposition rather than the object of a verb (as is the case in the active voice).
Let’s look at an example to get a better idea:
Active: Sam looked for the dog.
Prepositional passive: The dog was looked for (by Sam).
In the active sentence, the subject is Sam. However, in the prepositional passive sentence, the subject is omitted (or included after the phrasal verb “look for”) and is replaced by the object (i.e., the dog). The main feature of the prepositional passive sentence is that the verb and preposition (usually a phrasal verb) are not separated, which results in a “stranded” preposition.
When Should You Use the Prepositional Passive?
The prepositional passive can be used when the writer or speaker wants to emphasize the object of the sentence rather than the subject. This could be due to several reasons, such as the subject being unknown or irrelevant – or the subject being known but the writer or speaker intentionally omitting it for some reason (usually not a good sign!).
Here are some more examples of the prepositional passive, along with explanations:
David is relied on (by many people).
(David is reliable; therefore, he is relied on by many people.)
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The supermarket was broken into.
(It’s unknown who broke into the supermarket.)
I was spoken to (by someone).
(Someone spoke to me about an issue.)
I was spoken about.
(Here, “about” implies that I was discussed by at least two other people. For example, “John and Mary were speaking about me/gossiping about me.”)
The prepositional passive is a unique grammatical feature of the English language (and is only used in a few other languages). Overall, it’s used in a similar way to the passive voice, except that the verb is linked to a preposition, which is “stranded”. Typically, it’s used in informal or conversational language rather than written language because the meaning of the sentence can be unclear or confusing without further context.
Interested in learning about other unique or tricky grammar rules in English? Check out our Grammar Tips page to read one of our thousands of English grammar-related posts.