I have seen the rule put forward that

We need a direct object to form a passive sentence.

The following sentences don't have direct objects according to some schools of thought, they have prepositional phrases. But are these sentences passivisible?

He is playing with me ["with me"= prepositional phrase] no direct object in this sentence

John is sitting by me ["by me"= prepositional phrase] no DO in this sentence

I slept in the bed ["in the bed"= prepositional phrase] no DO in this sentence

Mary arrived at school ["at school"= prepositional phrase] no DO in this sentence

He fell on the ground ["on the ground"= prepositional phrase] no DO in this sentence

There are questions I feel can't be asked in isolation:

Can a prepositional phrase like these act like a direct object?

Should it be called a direct object?

Are there exceptional cases?

How does all this bear upon passivisability?

I will be very grateful to you If you provide the reasonable answers of my questions. Thank you so much!

  • Whoa, just one question per post.
    – Kris
    Jan 7, 2015 at 7:24
  • And, after having done some background research to show.
    – Kris
    Jan 7, 2015 at 7:25

2 Answers 2


The premise of the question, namely that "we need a direct object to form a passive sentence" is not correct. Active sentences with prepositional phrases can indeed be converted into passives, such as in the first example:

I am being played with (by him).

Google shows plenty of hits with the similar phrase "You are being toyed with".

In fact, all of the sentences listed can, in an exercise in syntax, be converted to the passive as follows:

I am being sat by by him

The bed was slept in by me

School was arrived at by Mary

The ground was fallen on by him

Whether such constructions are considered acceptable has a lot to do with why we use the passive in the first place. Clearly, the passive allows the speaker or writer to make a certain person or thing the subject of the discourse.

So, the active sentence:

The decorators arrived at the school shortly before dawn

could in theory be converted to:

The school was arrived at by the decorators shortly before dawn, and by late evening had been completely repainted

if we wish to make the school our focus, not the decorators.

No doubt the passive here would still be found questionable by some. And this may also have something to do with the greater acceptability of idiomatic verb + prepositional phrases in the passive. Compare the following two sentences:

The room has been gone into many times today.

This problem has been gone into many times.

The second sentence with its idiomatic use seems much more acceptable.


Addressing an underlying assumption in your fourth question (but with obvious overlaps to the others) I'd argue that simplistic views on what a 'direct object' should be considered as being are ill thought out and can soon lead to confusion.

In The Passive and the Notion of Transitivity Monique De Mattia-Viviès argues that 'passivization can be better accounted for when the phenomenon of transitivity, on which it is based, is defined on semantic [rather than syntactic] grounds.'

She writes: (slightly modified, & augmented)

The passive is traditionally described as being based on the phenomenon of syntactic transitivity. If the verb is followed by an object complement, then the utterance can be passivized. Quirk et al. (1985, pp. 159-171), and Huddleston & Pullum (2002, p. 1431) for instance, underline that transitive verb sentences can be either active or passive, that ‘Most verbs taking just one object permit passivation:

The hail damaged the car.

The car was damaged by the hail.’

They add that in addition to copula (he is at home) and intransitive verbs (he is running), which having no object cannot take the passive, a closed category of verbs or verbal phrases, which are most of the time transitive verbs used statively or stative verbs, do not occur in the passive:

resemble / look like / take after someone ; suit / fit / become; have / possess / lack; number / hold; mean; mind; boast; befall ;fail (let down); cost / weigh; marry / meet; agree with:

  1. They have a nice house.
  2. He lacks confidence.
  3. The auditorium holds 1500 people.
  4. The dress becomes you.
  5. John resembles his father.
  6. His son took after him.
  7. Will that suit you ?
  8. The coat does not fit you.
  9. This resort boasts the best beaches on the east coast.
  10. He weighs a lot.
  11. The enemy numbered over 20,000.
  12. Three squared equals nine.
  13. I don’t think they mind your criticism.
  14. A strange adventure befell him.

  15. He failed her. (= ‘he let her down’.)

  16. John married her in June.
  17. I met John in the street.
  18. Mary agreed with Paul.

These verbs can be divided into two sets: Resemble, have, mean, mind, fit, cost, weigh, measure, lack, hold, etc. (set 1) Marry, meet (set 2) As the examples below show, these verbs permit passivization in one of their senses, when the subject of the active is agentive or partly agentive, i.e. when they refer to a process (set 1) and/or when they cease to be reciprocal (set 2):

  1. John has a book. *a book is had (by John). I’ve been had again. (They had me again.). A good time was had by all. (We all had a good time.)

  2. The suit fits me. *I’m fitted by this suit. I was fitted by the tailor. (The tailor fitted me.)

  3. The car weighs two tons. *Two tons are weighed by this car. The letter was weighed by John. (John weighed the letter.)

  4. The patio measures just 7 feet across. *Just 7 feet across is/are measured by the patio. The level of anticoagulant in the blood, which is measured by a number called the INR, is hard to control. (A number called INR measures the level of anticoagulant in the blood.)

  5. This auditorium holds 500 people. *500 people are held by this auditorium. The cup was held by the winner. (The winner held the cup.)

  6. Mary married John. *John was married by Mary. John was married by the preacher. (The preacher married John.)

  7. Mary met John purely by chance in the street. *John was met by Mary purely by chance in the street. John was met by Mary at the station. (The meeting was scheduled.) (John met Mary at the station.) His demands were met.

The conclusion she goes on to draw is not codifiable as a simple purely syntactically-based rule:

Conclusion: with intransitive verbs, especially when there is no cognitive presupposition, the passive is possible if the NP included in the adjunct of the active is affected in some way, and if the subject (which becomes the agent by-phrase) conveys a lot of information.

This also affects transitive verbs: the agent by-phrase, when present, is always rhematic, and is sometimes obligatory for the sentence to be grammatically correct, otherwise the sentence does not convey enough information....

  • @ Edwin Ashworth, I did not get what you really want to say as a conclusion of this discussion, please elaborate a bit in simple words. Thanks
    – shopDada14
    Jan 7, 2015 at 13:41
  • Before you start deciding whether something that looks like an S-V-DO sentence passivises, you have to decide whether it really makes sense to treat it as an S-V-DO sentence. The whale weighed a ton. They fought tooth and nail. He seems a nice man. The euphorbia resembled a cactus. The model had its original box. The outlaw broke jail. The shed caught fire. The boy trod water. Even if a true S-V-DO structure seems a reasonable analysis, eg I met John (by chance), passivisation is sometimes unacceptable (*John was met by me (by chance). // Jan 7, 2015 at 22:35
  • Going on to address verb + PP constructions, the fact that 'This bed was slept in by the young Churchill' sounds acceptable, but 'This bed was slept above by the young Churchill' (think 'bunk') and 'This chair was rested in by Churchill' don't, shows that passivisability is very complex if not impossible to explain. Jan 7, 2015 at 23:34

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