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Can the passive voice be used for sentences in the present perfect continuous?

I understand the present perfect and its passive voice (have/has built, has been built). However, the passive voice of present perfect continuous is unclear:

  • Active: They have been building this house for years.
  • Passive: ???

I have seen suggestions of “This house has been being built for years,” but it sounds awkward and I don't recall anywhere else where two be verbs follow one another. Is this the right form to use?

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For decades we've been being told that the reason we're so fat is that we eat too much and we exercise too little. Present Perfect Continuous more strongly connotates that the action is ongoing than Present Perfect Simple does. – Talia Ford Sep 23 '13 at 22:59
If Congress had only passed the appropriations bill last year, this problem would have been being being taken care of by now. This is a recursive construction. There can be in a sentence an infinite number of identical words in sequence. It's just that, ever so rare are the contexts in which more than one reiteration is needed. – Talia Ford Sep 24 '13 at 0:27

5 Answers 5

I think "has been being built" is grammatical, but few people would say it. I think most people would use the impersonal active form you gave.

An alternative in some dialects is "This house has been a-building for years", but that's not in any standard variety as far as I know.

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To bolster this case, if you use Google ngrams on 'has been being', the most recent hits show on the first page almost all references to 'has been being' being used or discussed in terms of English grammar (for EFL) or linguistics. That is, it is an academic exercise to use it, but no one for real uses it, and would naturally use an active instead. – Mitch Jul 27 '11 at 13:52
@Mitch With certain verbs, it's still unremarkable to find it being used. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 13:31
@Edwin any examples? – Mitch Jun 27 at 8:57
@Mitch Following Erik's lead below, I've checked on 'has been being V-ed' stats for verbs I felt might be more likely candidates. They're in the comment. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 27 at 14:18

This house has been being built for years

is horribly clumsy and inelegant.

If I google the expression "has been being built", at my time/space coordinates it currently achieves 24,400 hits.

That figure seems to place this particular "has been being [X]" construction towards the upper end of the prevalence scale: if I substitute almost any other common verb for built, I get far less hits, e.g. eaten (82), drunk (11), got (18), gotten (8), forgotten (27), walked (21), run (89), cooked (40), fried (6), infected (11), cured (13), thought (14), read (77), spoken (31), written (7,600 - all the top hits here discussing whether the usage is allowable), performed (96), planted (15), grown (29), investigated (87), inspected (5), ridden (58), driven (63), cried (6), prayed (16), fucked (11), beaten (29), hunted (21), killed (21), buried (18), prohibited (1), encouraged (12), and questioned (32).

It should be noted that as with written, a fair number of the top hits for some of the other verbs related to the question of how grammatical such a construction is. So it is arguable that they should really be excluded from the counts on the grounds that they represent mentions rather than uses of the terms in question.

The most notable exceptions I found were said (a remarkable 4,260,000 hits), asked (1,175,000), and published (603,000). Done gets 29,700 hits.

The discrepancy between the semantically similar said (4,260,000) and spoken (31) cries out for an explanation, as does that for asked (1,175,000) and questioned (32); unfortunately, I don't have one.

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned outliers, it seems apparent that the "has been being [X]" construction is used little with most verbs.

The underlying idea embedded in your question is much more nicely expressed by your other variant,

They have been building this house for years

or by a form of words that uses a deverbal noun, e.g.

This house has been under construction for years

Alternatively, you can say

The {construction / building} of this house has been underway for years

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Good ferreting out (if that's not an inappropriate metaphor) (OK, especially as it is). There are other commoner collocations. Google hits ams/tc are: "has been being discussed" 1 230 000; considered 1 110 000; planned 511 000; argued_ 26 500; fought 115 000; debated 118 000; abused 488 000; served 333 000; observed 157 000; neglected 76 900; followed 587 000; implemented 541 000; offered 776 000; provided 637 000 ... The choice of verb has a very marked effect. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 at 12:49

"This house has been being built for years" is perfectly grammatical and contrary to what @Colin Fine says, many people would normally use it. There isn't any real alternative, so if one needs to express what the sentence says, they must use this tense. Get down to reading books and the tense will not sound awkward in no time.

Compare the following:

I've been being shot at.
I've been shot at.

The second sentence doesn't really make any sense. You may say that "you've been shot", but that's totally different, naturally. There's no alternative to "I've been being shot at."


Some people obviously don't understand the meaning behind those two sentences, so I'm updating my answer to explain myself.

Past: They shot me!
Present perfect: I've been shot!
This sentence has no present perfect continuous, because it's not a continuous action!

Going on ...

Past: They were shooting at me!
Present perfect continuous: I've been being shot at!
This is the only way to express the continuous action in present perfect (continuous)!

Another example that came to my mind while my answer has been being updated ... is ... uhm ... already expressed :)

For all the native speakers who would never use this tense: learn the language better and stop using the native speaker card, it's useless...

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A native speaker would say "I've been shot at." Never the other one. Search for it on google, this is the only hit! – z7sg Ѫ Jul 27 '11 at 11:21
I've been shot at is what someone might cry when they've just been shot at. I've been being shot at is what someone could say if they've been asked what they've been doing all day (for example) – Matt E. Эллен Jul 27 '11 at 12:43
@JSBangs: I don't see anything strict about Colin's answer, in fact it is quite lenient, being pretty open to alternatives just noting the frequency of use. – Mitch Jul 27 '11 at 13:40
Whatever the intended meaning of your examples, and whatever the grammaticality of them (I find them both strictly grammatical (but only given the conversation...I would have thought the first ungrammatical if found in the wild), the first is hard to parse, and the second is easy. – Mitch Jul 27 '11 at 13:42
It may be strictly grammatical, and it may express a situation with slightly greater precision if you use both of these tenses—but why must language always be able to express everything without ambiguity in a short word or phrase? I contend that we do not really need this precision here, and that most people use has been shot at for both, context filling in the rest. Besides, it is not frequently used, probably because many people find it ugly. That should count for something: language is not only a tool. – Cerberus Jul 27 '11 at 15:49

"This house has been in the building process for years."

Sounds more natural than

"This house has been being built for years."

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Yes, the passive past perfect continuous is sometimes cited as being a relatively recent innovation in English (cf Mair & Leech, "Current Changes in English Syntax" in The Handbook of English Linguistics, Blackwell, p. 320) and isn't so common, though possibly on the rise. A similar observation is made about some other passive constructions, e.g. modal continuous passives ("would be being built").

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protected by MετάEd Sep 24 '13 at 4:21

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