Could someone please tell me what the passive voice is for the following sentence:

I was trying to study Chinese but I couldn't.

I think it will be:

Chinese was being tried to be studied, but it wasn't possible.

But I'm not sure, I would appreciate some help.


1 Answer 1


You cannot generate a grammatical solution to this puzzle for reasons elaborated in linguist Geoffery Pullum’s 2014 paper Fear and Loathing of the English Passive published in Language and Communication.

Specifically, your suggestion violates the rule that Pullum provides in Information-structure constraints on passives under section 2.4.2:

The denotation of the by-phrase NP in a passive clause must denote something at least as new in the discourse as the subject.

That’s because the proffered reformulation (with missing by me added) is ungrammatical in English:

*Chinese was being tried to be studied by me, ...

The reason that that is ungrammatical is because the subject Chinese cannot be used because it is newer in the discourse than the passive complement by me. Pullum writes:

This information-packaging constraint is a real, important, and fully general part of the way long passives work.

I recommend reading the whole paper, but if you prefer something like a shorter, Cliff Notes version of that paper, you can read a 2011 précis of his related work.

  • Let's finish that quote, shall we? It is remarkable that ... hardly any attempts at describing the passive make any mention of it [i.e., the constraint mentioned]. Not really so remarkable because to buy the premise, you have to buy that the following is ungrammatical: A man walks into a pub leading a bear on a leash. #A beer and a pot of honey are ordered by him.
    – deadrat
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 2:11
  • @deadrat That sentence is being considered grammatical by you?
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 2:13
  • 1
    I find A beer and a pot of honey are ordered by him to be unremarkable narrative. The trouble with the OP's sentence is that the direct object isn't Chinese; it's to study Chinese. If the OP's sentence had been I attempted Chinese (to avoid the alternate meaning of try), the passive is easy: Chinese was attempted by me. The infinitive doesn't quite sound idiomatic: To study Chinese was attempted by me, but Studying Chinese was attempted by me seems OK.
    – deadrat
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 2:19
  • 1
    @deadrat Native speakers generate Chinese was attempted by me then? I disagree.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 2:20
  • 1
    Couldn't you use something like, "Study of Chinese was attempted with little success."? Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 4:29

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