I'm learning English.
I think the sentence "The door was locked" has two meanings!. I'm very confused.

First of all, let's look at this example:

I broke the glass (Active)
The glass was broken (Passive)


Now, this:
(Change Active Voice to Passive Voice using above method):

I locked the door (Active)
The door was locked (Passive)

Now, The past simple of the sentence "The door is locked" is "The door was locked" Again!

The door is locked (Simple Present)
The door was locked (Past Simple)


Can you understand what I mean?
I think the sentence "The door was locked" has two meanings. Am I right?
Maybe I'm wrong. Why the English language is very confusing?

  • 1
    Locked as in "a locked door" is also an adjective. Verbs can be changed into adjectives using the past-participle: a loved child; a broken chair; a burnt dinner... etc. Related: Compound Adjectives and -ed
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 15, 2015 at 21:19
  • 2
    Yes, you are right; "the door was locked" has (at least) two meanings. I think other languages have similar subtleties. Usually, the exact meaning will be clear from the context, or irrelevant if context permits both meanings. Feb 15, 2015 at 21:23
  • Yes, now that I remember this question was very similar to yours: verb or adjective in “The blue page is stapled to the red page”?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 15, 2015 at 21:23
  • 1
    Cf The door was open/opened vs The door was closed/closed. One is a passive, one is a predicate adjective, and it's not always possible to tell the difference. Of course, there are ways to make the sentences obviously one or the other kind, but often enough it doesn't make any difference. Like the difference between there, their, and they're, it's a distinction that's almost never relevant, and therefore is usually ignored. Feb 15, 2015 at 21:26
  • The ambiguity is present in your first example too: I broke the glass (Active) // The glass was broken (Passive) (by me) // The glass was broken (link verb usage; compare The glass was dirty). One sense is semelfactive, the other stative. Feb 15, 2015 at 23:34

2 Answers 2


Yes, there are two meanings:

  1. The door was locked. --> Someone locked the door.

    • It can be called a dynamic or eventive passive
  2. The door was locked. --> The door was not unlocked.

    • It can be called a false passive or a stative passive

First one is a canonical passive and the second one is a participle used as an adjective. The second one is sometimes called a false passive but if they are considered to be passives, they may be called stative (or static, or resultative) passives, since they represent a state or result. By contrast the canonical passives, representing an action or event, may then be called dynamic or eventive passives. 1

The ambiguity in such sentences arises because the verb be is used in English both as the passive auxiliary and as the ordinary copular verb for linking to predicate adjectives. When get is used to form the passive, there is no ambiguity: The window got broken cannot have a stative meaning.1

Stative passives (to be + adjective) are less ambiguous when describing emotional states and the adjectives often take a range of prepositions to connect them to the cause of the emotion (instead of agent by-phrase).2 (Related: Prepositional phrase Vs Direct object)

  • I was bored. (= I felt bored.)

  • I was depressed. (= I felt depressed.)

Occasionally, however, even some of these constructions may have a true passive interpretation. In this case, the sentence could have an active counterpart of “Your behavior shocked me.”2

  • I was shocked by your behavior.

Sometimes, syntactic ambiguity becomes a bigger problem when transforming some passives into active voice and vice versa. It is a bit beyond this topic but below is an example of a transformation of a more complex structure:

  1. (passive) Thirteen patients were enrolled and randomly assigned . . .
  2. (active) We enrolled and randomly assigned thirteen patients . . .

The verb “enroll” can be used with or without a direct object (it can be either transitive or intransitive). That means, in the active version of the sentence above (#2), the reader must resolve which of two potential structures is right — the one in which the writers are the enrollees or the one in which the patients are. Syntactic ambiguity increases cognitive processing time.3

1 Wikipedia / English Passive Voice / Stative and adjectival uses
2 Rochester Institute of Technology / Stative Passive Constuctions Describing Emotional States
3 Pros Write / What happens when passive voice is banned?


Nothing confusing ...

  • The door was locked, but now it isn't locked anymore.
  • The door was locked yesterday.
  • The door is locked. It is presently locked.
  • 2
    I for one don't find your second example (at least) unambiguous. Feb 15, 2015 at 23:31

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