I often see this phrase: 'It can be used for...'

But why is it not: 'It can be use for...'?

Even though it is still can be used presently? Is it because of the word 'be'?

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  • "used" is passive. Has nothing to do with past/present. – gnasher729 Jun 19 '16 at 16:31
  • Used is not passive; used is the past participle of the verb use (it's also the past tense, because use is a regular verb). The past participle is the verb form that appears, with auxiliary verbs, in the passive and the perfect constructions, among others. – John Lawler Jun 19 '16 at 18:24
  • "You/one can use it for.." and "It can be used..." are both correct. – The Nate Jun 19 '16 at 19:16

This construction (or verb-chain, or verb-group—we don't have a consistent name for it) is a modal passive.

Only on the first verb in the group is finite—having a specific past or non-past reference.; subsequent verbs must be non-finite forms.

A modal verb is always first, and always finite:


The verb immediately following a modal always takes the infinitive form, unmarked with to. The infinitive form of BE is be, so

can be

The passive is constructed from a form of BE followed by a past participle form. Use is a regular verb, so its past participle form is identical with its past form, used.

can be used.


The "used" of "it can be used" is not a past tense form, despite it being called a "past participle". Instead, it is a passive verb form, which is usually the same as the past form. The term "past participle" is a confusing and unwise piece of terminology, but it's traditional, and we're stuck with it. Sorry. It ought to be called a "passive participle".

  • I agree that the name is unfortunate, but "passive participle" isn't much better--it doesn't describe use in the perfect construction or the (admittedly rare) use as an active adjectival: learned, travelled. – StoneyB Jun 21 '16 at 1:22
  • @StoneyB Huh? The passive participle is not used in the perfect construction, any more than it's used as a past tense. And none of these is an adjective. – Greg Lee Jun 21 '16 at 3:32
  • Are you proposing that English verbs have three participles with identical form? --a perfect participle (He has broken his leg), a passive participle (His leg was broken when he fell) and an adjectival participle (He was treated for a broken leg). I'll buy that, though I'd rather say there's just one participle with three uses. – StoneyB Jun 21 '16 at 10:12

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