Is this what shock felt like?

I came across the sentence and it seems a bit confusing to me. While the meaning is completely clear, the sentence structure seems wrong.

According to me, it should be:

Is this what shock is felt like?

  • Without changing the matrix clause tense: Is this what shock felt like? (past tense) / "Is this what shock feels like? (present tense) In both cases the what clause is a subordinate interrogative one.
    – BillJ
    Apr 13, 2018 at 7:59
  • Unclear -- lacks context.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 11, 2018 at 21:08

4 Answers 4


This is an example of the so-called "middle construction". Which is called that because it is neither passive nor active. It's in the middle.

Here are a few more examples:

  • This shirt washes well.
  • The PS4 sold really well last week.
  • The song is playing in the background.
  • The window just won't shut.

This construction is very common (in English), and it is important to understand that the whole reason it exists in the first place is because it conveys something that neither the passive nor the active can quite convey.

I will lift the following bit verbatim from an older answer on this site:

Sometimes, the middle construction conveys some additional information that neither the active nor passive conveys completely.

For example:

  1. I can't shut the window. (active)
  2. The window can't be shut. (passive)
  3. The window won't shut. (middle)

All of these sentences give the same fundamental information, i.e. that the action of shutting cannot occur with the window. But each one says something slightly different about why and to what extent.

In (1), the only claim is that the speaker cannot shut the window. In (2), using the passive, the implication is that nobody there is able to shut the window. In both cases, there is the possibility that perhaps the people trying to close the window are too weak or are doing it wrong. However, in (3), the blame for the inability to shut the window is placed squarely on the window: it is the window that won't shut.

In your case, the passive "Is this what shock is felt like?" introduces a) an agent, unnamed, and b) a physical tangibility by that agent. Neither of which is something the author wants. And so they don't use the passive.


Judging by the sentence which seems right to you, you want to use "feel" in the passive voice.

But in the original sentence "feel" is used in the active voice, just like in, for example, The fabric feels soft (we wouldn't say "The fabric is felt soft") or It feels good (not "It is felt good").

Speaking about shock, we could say Shock felt terrible or Shock felt like (something). So, asking the question, we can only say Is this what shock felt like? (some other examples: Is this what the fabric felt like? Is this what the coffee tasked like? Is this what the song sounded like?).

I hope it makes sense to you.

  • It is really helpful information. Thanks for sharing this. My thought was not correct. 'feel' here is in active form. Apr 13, 2018 at 7:33
  • I think it is necessary to mention that all sense verbs (Look, feel, sound taste and smell) act - subject + sense verb + adjective. ex: It feels good, She looks angry, Sugar tastes sweet. Apr 13, 2018 at 8:11

There is a contrast between the shock in the present and the person's entire past life during which no such shock was experienced. That's where the past tense is from: that recalled past life. In fact, one could go further, and use past also in the main clause: "Was this what shock felt like?"


"Is this what shock felt like?"

I'm not sure why you think the structure feels wrong to you, but know that it's not wrong. It's exactly right. You are asking a person who apparently felt shock in the past if the feeling you're experiencing right now is like that.

"Is this what shock is felt like?"

I'm not sure why you think this should be the structure instead, but it shouldn't be. All I can imagine is you're not a native English speaker because, syntactically, this sentence makes no sense. It's not that you can't use the passive voice to say "shock is felt," but the phrase "what shock is felt like" is nonsensical.

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