Now, a friend over the internet wanted me to explain the passive voice to him. He began by providing his story's "readability statistics" of Microsoft Word, which said that 7% of his sentences were passive. Luckily, this story was at my disposal, so I investigated whether the statistic was correct or not. Then I came to this sentence:

There was something placed on the table...

First off, existential sentences are "newish" to me, but I believe that to be one. I also believe it's passive, but I'm unsure. I made several google searches, with only one outside of google books (the book was probably too advanced for me) talking about it. Now the reason that I think that is passive is the same reason why the person made that post (but in reverse). When turned into a nonexistential sentence it is passive (EDIT: I've been notified that the nonexistential sentence doesn't correspond to was placed but rather had been placed):

Something had been placed on the table [by X]...

Although, another reading could be that it isn't passive. Placed on the table may be seen as a (past) participial phrase modifying something. This interpretation seems untenable to me.

So am I right to think that this is a passive existential sentence?

  • 2
    A percentage of 7% of sentences being passive is excellent. The advice should not be "avoid the passive voice"; it should be "don't overuse the passive voice"; 7% is not overusing it. This web page advises that no more than 10% should be in passive voice, and even that is a much stricter bound than you really need. Aug 19, 2014 at 12:28
  • @PeterShor, I agree; I haven't responded to him yet because I wanted to investigate whether Word was being a computer and labeling anything with were/was/etc+past participle verb as a passive construction. Aug 19, 2014 at 12:33
  • 2
    Not only computers label sentences as passive when they shouldn't — overzealous Strunk&White adepts (as well as S&W themselves!) have been known to do the same thing. Maybe they evolved into the Word grammar-checker...
    – oerkelens
    Aug 19, 2014 at 13:12
  • Actually, the equivalent of There was something placed on the table is Something had been placed on the table. Was placed means something different. Aug 20, 2014 at 14:07
  • 1
    I don't understand your first sentence ... ? Aug 23, 2014 at 0:03

3 Answers 3


This is an example of Whiz deletion. The sentence is short for:

  • There was something which had been placed on the table...

The relative pronoun which and the past perfect form of BE (had been) have been omitted. This is a type of reduced relative clause. For more info on Whiz deletion see this post of John Lawler's on Whiz deletion, and also visit the link therein.

The upshot of this is that your sentence is not a passive 'existential' sentence. It is a case of an 'existential' sentence containing a relative clause. The relative clause is modifying the noun something, and this clause does indeed contain a passive.

Hope this helps!

  • Let me ask that question here, so that you can fatten up your answer-post. :) . . . Could you explain why the following example is, or is not, a passive existential sentence: "There were hidden in his in-tray no fewer than thirty unpaid bills." (and because it is an appropriate example w.r.t. this thread.) -- By "passive existential", I mean that the main clause is passive (that is, having a passive clause as a modifier within an NP isn't enough, nor is having a passive clause as an element enough).
    – F.E.
    Aug 23, 2014 at 13:03
  • Ok, I'll give it a go. I'm not going to try and untangle the head NP no fewer than thirty unpaid bills though!!! Aug 23, 2014 at 14:05
  • Seeing as I wish not to overfill the original post's comments, I'm going ask a few questions here. First, is complex intransitive just another way of saying copular? Second, is adjectival passive another term for an adjective that is a participle, i.e., broken? Finally, is a verbal (or be-passive, which I assume after inspecting the student's version of CGEL on google books is to distinguish it from other passives, e.g. the get-passive) just simply a participle verb? Aug 23, 2014 at 14:10
  • @JasperLocke I was just copying their label from their diagram but in short, complex intranstive is, yes a verb with a PC and no DO (as opposed to both eg I consider this a problem). 'Verbal passive' was just my way of distinguishing a normal passive construction from an 'adjectival passive'. As for that last one, am still researching exactly what they mean, but am beginning to suspect it is just a case of an adjective PC which indicates that something was done/is done to the predicand, specifically an adjective with a form identical to a past participle. Aug 23, 2014 at 19:35
  • "I'm not going to try and untangle the head" -- Oh, no, please don't parse down that low! :) . . . (Also, consider: "Could there be hidden in one of those space saucers sitting down there in the field his long lost sister?")
    – F.E.
    Aug 23, 2014 at 20:09

The main verb is copular was with dummy subject there. It is impossible to cast that into the passive voice. something is the complement which has the participle placed that the CGEL calls a bare passive clause.

The sentence has one independent clause and that one is not passive. However, it does have a second clause (placed on the table) which is.

  • Downvoter want to explain? Existential "there is" cannot be used for the passive. Aug 20, 2014 at 19:16
  • +1, a good solid answer and explanation. I wasn't expecting to see this type of grammatical answer on ELU. :)
    – F.E.
    Aug 20, 2014 at 23:14
  • @guifa, is dummy there subject though? If you change something to, for example, two things, the verb was needs to become were to agree with it. Aside from that, I believe you may be correct in that the sentence is not passive but does have a bare passive clause. By the way, what's the corresponding "full" passive clause? Aug 21, 2014 at 6:50
  • Full passive would be "There is something that's placed on the table". You just hit on two controversies in English grammar in your comment — the status of there in existential copula (most, but not all, consider it a pronoun) and the agreement of the verb with the number ("there's two things" works for a surprising number of a speakers). Formal writing mandates the agreement, but speech it's the wild West Aug 21, 2014 at 10:43
  • 2
    @JasperLocke and guifa, perhaps someone could discuss (in an answer post or in the original question post) an example like: "There were hidden in his in-tray no fewer than thirty unpaid bills." :)
    – F.E.
    Aug 21, 2014 at 17:55

I think this construction is, in fact, using a past participle. Further, because it uses a past participle it is definitely passive voice (which I believe is a different conclusion than you were expecting!) Here is a well written example from UNC at Chapel Hill:

Once you know what to look for, passive constructions are easy to spot. Look for a form of “to be” (is, are, am , was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”). Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:
form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice
For example:
The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.


While this quotation works very well with modern English, it is possible to come across "be" with a past participle of intransitive verbs, this reflects an older construction in which it was possible to make the present perfect with "be", rather than "have". Remnants of this construction exist today and are exceptions to the rule claimed by this quotation. Intransitive verbs cannot be passive voice.

By the way you may want to review this entire document as it's very on-point with the rules of use of passive voice in writing, at least as taught by a typical American university.

As to the second part of your question, yes, the use of "there" as the subject makes this sentence an existential sentence. So this is a passive, existential sentence as you suspected (but perhaps for slightly different reasons than you expected).

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Aug 23, 2014 at 19:52

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.