From an answer on Quora:

"...the phrasal verbs are usually Germanic, and Germanic words in English are more often colloquial, whereas Romance words are more often formal. The colloquial/formal distinction (linguists speak of colloquial and formal registers) traces its origin, or so I have heard it theorized, to the process by which Middle English developed out of peasant Anglo-Saxon and elite Norman French."

To my understanding, according to this sentence, Middle English was affected by the process so is passive. If so why doesn't this sentence have a "was" in it? I mean isn't "the process by which Middle English WAS developed..." the correct one? Can you explain it to me?

  • 1
    No one did the development. ME evolved on its own. The sentence does not suggest passivity. Rather than being "affected by the process," it states clearly that the development was the process.
    – Kris
    Dec 4, 2018 at 10:17
  • Please cite the source of the statement.
    – Kris
    Dec 4, 2018 at 10:54
  • 1
    Ally, I added the link, and also the preceding sentence in the quote (since this provides important context for the sentence you're asking about). Dec 4, 2018 at 11:25

1 Answer 1


The confusion between an intransitive verb (which doesn't have a passive form) and a transitive verb (which can be active or passive) is one that has been responsible for many incorrect passive-shaming accusations.

It doesn't help that English has many verbs that can act as transitive verbs or intransitive verbs - they are ambitransitive. Just like develop here:

Middle English developed out of XYZ

The above is an intransitive verb with extra prepositions that add more detail.

ABC developed Middle English.

This is a transitive verb in the active voice, with the agent as the subject and the patient as the object.

Middle English was developed by ABC.

This is a transitive verb in the passive voice, with by indicating the agent of the action and the patient of the action being the subject. This is the "classic" transformation of the active into the passive in English.

Middle English was developed out of / from XYZ.

This is a transitive verb in the passive voice, with extra prepositions to attach itself to an argument.

So why in this case is the author using an intransitive verb instead of a transitive verb in the passive voice? Because the author wants to focus solely on the subject "Middle English" as an experiencer of the action, rather than making it a patient which would imply some kind of agent deliberately developing Middle English.

  • In summary, [see my comment at OP].
    – Kris
    Dec 4, 2018 at 10:53
  • @Kris If you feel that a comment of yours is a useful summary of this answer, perhaps you should include its actual text here.
    – tmgr
    Dec 4, 2018 at 11:16
  • 3
    This is a comprehensive answer, so I'm not sure why you got the driveby downvote. Maybe someone didn't understand the key point you were making about agency. +1, and welcome to EL&U :-) Dec 4, 2018 at 11:19
  • @Michaelyus thank you so much for your wonderful explanation but I'm confused about one thing: Why did author use "by which" phrase while "developed" is being used as an intransitive verb in this sentence. Can you explain it ? Thank you.
    – Ally Fe
    Dec 5, 2018 at 7:32
  • @AllyFe Compare: Something occurred because of reason X and X is the reason because of which something occurred. This latter sentence contains a relative clause introduced by a preposition, which requires because of which. Same thing with your example.
    – Michaelyus
    Dec 5, 2018 at 10:07

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