I am reading one PhD thesis at the moment, and encountered an explanation which states that the form of the verb take used in the following sentence is 'impersonal passive'.

On 25 April, for the first time in Portugal, fully free and democratic elections took place.

I don't think it is correct, but am not quite sure, because I believe that this is an active sentence. Could you please explain to me whether there is a mistake in this claim or no not?

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    Not an answer to your question, but took place in that sentence is synonymous with happened or occurred and makes complete sense. – Jake Regier Jul 29 '15 at 18:59
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    You're correct. This is not a passive construction. Whoever wrote that explanation didn't understand what "passive" meant. That means that you shouldn't trust their judgement on "impersonal", or any other grammatical term. Passive is pretty basic; people who don't know what passive is should not be commenting on English grammar. – John Lawler Oct 3 '15 at 22:05

This is a use of the verb 'to take' in the active voice. Changing 'took place' to 'were conducted' would introduce a passive verb.


You're right. Not all impersonal constructions are passive; the sentence you quote is impersonal, but it uses the active form of the verb (as Sam Burns says).

Geoff Pullum, a linguist, explains in a Language Log post "The passive in English" that passive constructions in English always use a participle (almost always the past participle); but you can see that there is no participle in "took place." This is the simplest test I have encountered yet for seeing if a verb form might be passive. Of course, it doesn't work the other way (not all uses of participles are passive).

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    You cannot form a passive out of to take place because it operates as a phrasal intransitive verb, so there is no object to switch into subject position: the place was not taken by the elections. Moreover, the participle under discussion here is almost always with the past participle (sometimes called the “‑EN” form, mutatis mutandis), as that one is by its nature passive, rather than with the gerund-participle (sometimes called the “‑ING” form) used for active progressives. – tchrist Oct 3 '15 at 21:59
  • @sumelic: Passive always uses a past participle, and there's always a form of be right before it. If it were a present participle with a form of be in front of it, it would be the Progressive, not the Passive. That's how they stack up in the verb chain: Modal+Inf, have +PastPart, be +PresPart, be +PastPart, MainVb. – John Lawler Oct 3 '15 at 22:10
  • @JohnLawler: I'm just summarizing what Pullum says in the linked post. Of course different linguists often use different terminology; perhaps I should make that more clear. The construction he talks about is forms like "That rash needs looking at by a specialist," which use a present participle in standard language, although a past participle is used instead in some regional varieties. – sumelic Oct 3 '15 at 22:14
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    Oh, he wants to call that passive? I'm surprised. That's a special collocation with need (and maybe some other equally weird verbs); it's like The bridge is building vs The bridge is being built, as we would now say it. – John Lawler Oct 3 '15 at 22:27

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