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This is a (one more!) question I have had to ask myself when dealing with the passive structure "someone is said to do/be doing/have done something"... which definitely is a tricky structure as it uses both a verb in the passive voice in the main clause and one in either the active or the passive voice in the subordinate clause.

What does the sentence

People said that the cyclist was performing at a surprisingly high level.

become in the passive?

Is

The cyclist was said to be performing at a surprisingly high level.

or

The cyclist was said to have been performing at a surprisingly high level.

the correct tense sequence?

I know that the adjective 'correct' will make native speakers of English shudder, but never mind…

Since the two actions of 'saying' and 'performing' are simultaneous, I would incline towards the first answer... Would the second one not imply that the action of 'performing' came earlier than the one of 'saying'?

An even 'nightmarisher' sentence which has just come to my sick English teacher's mind is 'People said that the injured racing driver was being operated on at the very moment.', turned into 'The racing driver was said to be being operated on at the very moment.' rather than 'The racing driver was said to have been being operated on at the very moment.'

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  • What is the importance of the connotation here? Also have been makes it sounds like it has changed to become otherwise. Oct 1 '20 at 21:56
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    That the cyclist was performing at a surprisingly high level was felt by people. That's a train wreck of a sentence, of course, but it's grammatical, if all you want to do is apply Passive. The sentence would almost instantly be Extraposed, though, to put the heavy subject back at the end: It was felt that the cyclist was performing at a surprisingly high level. And of course you can dump the agent phrase by people, because who else would have felt that way? Oct 1 '20 at 23:10
  • What exactly are you really asking here? Your example sentences are all in exactly the same tense. They are all in the past tense because was is the past singular of be and said is the past of say.
    – tchrist
    Oct 4 '20 at 0:23
  • my question is not well put, I must admit. It is not the main clause, which is in the passive voice, that I am interested in, but the subordinate clause, which becomes an infinitive clause. The question is WHICH infinitive clause: should it be a present infinitive (because the actions in the main clause and in the subordinate clause are simultaneous) or a perfect infinitive (because the main verb is in the past).
    – user58319
    Oct 4 '20 at 21:26
  • @user58319 I don't know what you mean by a "present infinitive". Your original sentence is of the form "People said X". Therefore its passive is "X was said by people". Are you trying trying to make the full tensed clause X into an untensed infinitive clause? Didn't I just answer this question already? Native speakers avoid complex cascades of verbs tacked one upon the next. People at yesterday's race said the winning racer did a good job from start to finish. It's silly to have it having been said to have been said to have been performing.
    – tchrist
    Oct 4 '20 at 21:40
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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

That the cyclist was performing at a surprisingly high level was felt by people. That's a train wreck of a sentence, of course, but it's grammatical, if all you want to do is apply Passive. The sentence would almost instantly be Extraposed, though, to put the heavy subject back at the end: It was felt that the cyclist was performing at a surprisingly high level. And of course you can dump the agent phrase by people, because who else would have felt that way?

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You're asking which is the correct tense sequence for the sentences relating to the cyclist and the racing driver when they are expressed in the passive voice. The answer is that both forms of both sentences are correct but are in different tenses.

A passive voice sentence can be either present tense or past tense, it can also be in any of the other aspects such as the continuous aspects or the future aspect. For example I can say "The surgeon is operating on the racing driver" or "The surgeon was operating on the racing driver". Both are grammatically correct but relate to different time frames.

We can also turn both sentences into passive sentences

"The cyclist is said to be performing at a surprisingly high level" (present tense, passive voice)

And

" The cyclist was said to be performing at a surprisingly high level (past tense, passive voice)

Also

"The racing driver is being operated on"

And

"The racing driver was being operated on"

The first is a contemporary account but the second could be referring to Alain Prost whose famous accident was decades ago. However, both sentences are in the passive voice. Indeed it is only by introducing a different verb that we can put a sentence of that nature into the active voice "The racing driver is / was undergoing an operation" for instance. The reason is that the driver really is passive because he/she is not only being passive, they are, almost certainly, unconcious.

Activity and Passivity are one thing and tense is another thing. Don't confuse the two.

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