Could you please explain to me why the grammatical form in the first sentence is correct while the uasage of passive voice in the second sentence is not permitted.

I was given money.

The pupils were explained everything to by the teacher.

  • 1
    I can't give the rules why, but in my humble opinion, (it just sounds right this way when saying the sentence out loud), 2. could be re-written as, "The pupils were explained to, by the teacher, everything." or "The teacher explained everything to the pupils." I apologize for not being able to answer your question but I thought I might leave what suggestions I could.
    – MegaMark
    Aug 11, 2014 at 9:06
  • 2
    @MegaMark's suggestion of "The pupils were explained to, by the teacher, everything" is barbarous, and should definitely be avoided. "The teacher explained everything to the pupils" is both idiomatic and grammatically correct, but is in the active voice and is thus irrelevant to your question.
    – Erik Kowal
    Aug 11, 2014 at 9:26
  • 4
    to belongs with 'pupils,' not 'explain.' "Everything was explained to the pupils by the teacher" is the passive voice. Please also visit English Language Learners
    – Kris
    Aug 11, 2014 at 9:52
  • I'm curious about this. Even if it was "everything was explained the pupils", that's still obviously incorrect... but why? Why can money be given to me, and the teacher explain everything to me, but take a different construction when it's in the passive voice?
    – Lunivore
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:00
  • The 'to' wouldn't be in that second construction anyway: The pupils were explained everything by the teacher. There seems only marginal usage of "explained" in this way.
    – Neil W
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:06

4 Answers 4


Generally, if a verb is transitive and the indirect object of this verb requires a preposition before it (as opposed to being an indirect object which only requires a preposition if the direct object is before it), you can't use the indirect object as a subject in passive voice.

So you can put this sentence into the passive:

I told a story to the pupils.
I told the pupils a story.
The pupils were told a story.

But here the last two sentences here are ungrammatical:

I mentioned the contest to the pupils.
* I mentioned the pupils the contest.
* The pupils were mentioned the contest to by me.

For explained, it seems to be a grey area grammatically, because apparently some people think "he explained me the situation" is grammatical, and some don't.

This rule doesn't apply to intransitive verbs and to some phrasal verbs:

He drove on the roads.
The roads were driven on.

We will not put up with bad grammar.
Bad grammar will not be put up with.

  • "he explained me the situation" is grammatical for me, but the key thing to note is that the because situation is the direct obejct, Aug 11, 2014 at 14:22

I really wonder on what your assessment that "the usage of passive voice in the second sentence is not permitted" is based. There is really no reason why it would not be permitted.

However, the sentence is ungrammatical for another reason:

*The pupils were explained everything to by the teacher.

If we leave that to out of there, there is nothing wrong with the sentence:

The pupils were explained everything by the teacher.

Note: as Peter Shor mentions in his comment to the question, there are plenty of people who will not agree that this sentence is grammatical.

There seem to be various levels of acceptance of the ditransitive use of explain. Personally, I fully understand the meaning of "A explained C to B" => "B was explained C by A", I see no reason to label it ungrammatical. Whether it is idiomatic is another thing, that largely depends on your audience.

Now, what was that to doing there? Actually, if you would have formed your first sentence in a similar way, it would have been:

*I was given to money.

You can choose what the subject of your sentence is — if the sentence in the active voice is You give me the money, you can make me or the money the subject. If you make me the subject, you use the nominative of me, which is I. To is used only with the me form (dative), not with the I form (nominative):

The money was given to me. (the money is the subject)
I was given the money. (I is the subject)

The same goes for your students:

The teacher explained everything to the students. (active)
Everything was explained to the pupils by the teacher. (passive, everything is the subject)
The pupils were explained everything by the teacher. (passive, the pupils is the subject)

As Peter mentions in his answer, whether the passive form where the indirect object become the subject is considered grammatical, depends on whether the indirect object can be used without a preposition. Although I have seen several people mention that this is an exceptional, or rare, occurrence in English, I beg to differ:

sing me a song
read me a story
show me a trick
teach me English
give me a break
lend me some money
send me a letter

These are just some quick examples I off the top of my head.

It does seem to be generally accepted in at least English and American English that in the case of explain, the preposition can not be dropped. However, in Indian English speakers seem to agree that it can. Also in (some?) Spanish-influenced English dialects, the preposition seems to be dropped habitually.

So if you want to make sure nobody criticizes your English, do not use sentences like:

Please explain me what is happening!
Can someone explain us how we got here?

On the other hand, as long as people get away with meaning the opposite of what the mean, I personally won't call those sentences wrong — they are clear in meaning and convey the intended message. If some consider it ungrammatical, I couldn't care less.

  • I really don't like your first paragraph. The pupils were told everything by the teacher is fine; The pupils were explained by the teacher is grammatical, but has a different meaning; ?The pupils were explained everything by the teacher seems to fall between two stools. I agree with OPs (tacit) belief that different verbs require different treatment in these circumstances; consider The teacher persuaded the pupils, and The teacher persuaded the pupils of [or with] his argument, but not *The teacher persuaded them his argument. Aug 11, 2014 at 12:04
  • @TimLymington: I am not sure I am following you. You mention my first paragraph... you say that passive voice is not allowed in this sentence? Then what is wrong with everything was explained by the teacher? That is passive too. As to whether I can be explained something, when explain is used ditransitively, I don't see why "The joke was explained to me by John" or "John explain the joke to me" could not be transformed to "I was explained the joke by John". I fail to see the link with the persuading teacher. There is no passive; _The pupils where persuaded with the argument by the teacher?
    – oerkelens
    Aug 11, 2014 at 12:25
  • I have to disagree that "The pupils were explained everything by the teacher" is valid.
    – Hellion
    Aug 11, 2014 at 14:01
  • @Hellion - that is exactly what Peter Shor said in his comment to the question. Some people accept it as grammatical, some don't.
    – oerkelens
    Aug 11, 2014 at 14:10
  • 1
    Well, put me clearly in the don't column, then. :-) As far as I'm concerned, "X was explained" invariably means that X is the topic that got talked about, regardless of what else follows. "He explained it" -> "It was explained by him". "He explained it to me" -> "It was explained to me by him." You cannot put the object of explanation into a non-object position.
    – Hellion
    Aug 11, 2014 at 14:50

A more idiomatic way to use the passive voice would be "The pupils had everything explained [to them] by their teacher". (The text in square brackets is optional because it is implied by the reference to the teacher.)

Less idiomatic, but still acceptable, is "The pupils were explained everything by their teacher". This is almost the same as your version, the main difference being that the preposition 'to' is discarded; this is not required when you have an indirect object (in this case, "The pupils").

  • I'm not familiar with the ditransitive usage (eg your second example) of 'explain', @Erik, but a previous thread addresses the issue of its acceptability. The opinions seem to conflict, though. 'Explain me it' sounds rather pidgin. Aug 11, 2014 at 9:48
  • @Edwin: but "give me it" also sounds rather pidgin. With two pronouns in modern English, you put the indirect object second and use a preposition. So "give it to me". Aug 11, 2014 at 12:26
  • @Peter Point taken. But 'Explain it John / Explain John it' sounds worse to my ears. And 'Explain John the meaning' no better. I accept the increasing frequency of this ditransitive usage, though, so wouldn't dream of downvoting Erik. Unless he's still wearing those shorts. Aug 11, 2014 at 12:36
  • @Edwin: you wouldn't say "give it John" or "give John it", either. If you have a pronoun as a direct object, you need to put it first and use a to before the indirect object. Aug 11, 2014 at 12:51
  • @Peter 'Give it John' is quite acceptable colloquially in at least the N of England. 'Give me it' is also a common colloquial alternative to 'Give it me'. I'd go with 'Give it to me' in a formal register, of course. But 'Explain John the meaning' contains no pronouns; there are a lot of statements like 'The key term here is the Dative Alternation, which allows the order Su Vb IO DO as well as the order Su Vb DO to IO. Explain does not govern this alternation; give does.' (John Lawler) Aug 11, 2014 at 13:05

Explain is a tricky verb to do this with, because different people think it works differently.

Let's try it with send. This is a great example of a ditransitive verb.

I sent John the letter.

When you switch direct and indirect object, you have to add the preposition to:

I sent the letter to John.

Now, you can put it into passive form in two different ways with two different subjects:

The letter was sent to John (by me).
John was sent the letter (by me).

You cannot say

*John was sent the letter to, (asterisks mean ungrammatical)

even though I sent the letter to John is fine.

Now, let's see how the grammar of a singly transitive verb, reveal, works:

You can say:

I revealed the secret to John,

but you can't say

*I revealed John the secret.

You can put it into passive form with the secret as the subject.

The secret was revealed to John.

but not with John as the subject:

*John was revealed the secret to.

To make John the subject, you have to use a different passive construction:

John had the secret revealed to him.

You can use this construction with ditransitive verbs, as well, but there's a difference. when you say John had the letter sent to him, it sounds like John directed me to send the letter to him. This implication isn't present in this construction with a monotransitive verb, like reveal.

Now, in some dialects explain can be ditransitive, in which case you can say

The teacher explained the pupils everything.

Speakers of these dialects make the sentence passive the standard way for ditransitive verbs:

The pupils were explained everything by the teacher.

Some dialects can't treat explain as ditransitive, in which case they have to say:

The teacher explained everything to the pupils.

To make it passive in these dialects, you have to say

The pupils had everything explained to them by the teacher.

TL:DR It is ungrammatical to say:

*The pupils were explained everything to by the teacher.

Depending on how you think the grammar of explain works, you must use one of:

The pupils were explained everything by the teacher.
The pupils had everything explained to them by the teacher.

  • Hello, Peter. Could you please improve on the some people's? You can have the port later. Dec 24, 2017 at 13:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.