I am preparing for an English exam and came across this problem:

(Instructions: Choose the option that is closest to the meaning of the original sentence.)

Original: "The board thought that the shares were unjustly distributed among the heirs."

A) The shares were thought to be unjustly distributed among the heirs.
B) The shares were thought to have been unjustly distributed among the heirs.

Can someone help me understand why A) is not correct?

  • 3
    Whoever wrote the question felt that (A) had to be interpreted as a passive construction, like (B), instead of using distributed as a predicate adjective, which would be correct without the have. They were not correct. Jun 2 at 13:32
  • This should be posted under ELL. Anyway, a distribution like this takes place once in the past. The shares do not have an "ongoing condition" so the past passive is right.
    – Lambie
    Jun 2 at 14:16
  • 2
    The shares are still distributed, even if the act of distribution took place in the past.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 2 at 14:41
  • @StuartF That link proves nothing in this regard.
    – Lambie
    Jun 2 at 14:47
  • 1
    @StuartF, Lambie to be distributed and to be distributed are 2 different things: one is an action, one is a state. The shares have been distributed, and now they are distributed.
    – njzk2
    Jun 2 at 21:19

2 Answers 2


The board thought that the shares were unjustly distributed among the heirs.

You can read this sentence in two ways.

First, you can see "distributed" as a predicative adjective describing the state of the shares. In that case, the (alleged) "being distributed unequally" and the "thinking" are simultaneous, so the closest equivalent is (A).

Secondly, you can see "were distributed" as a past-tense passive voice verb that has not undergone backshift (the backshifted "had been distributed" would also work there). In that case, it describes an action, i.e. the act of distribution itself, that (allegedly) would have occurred prior to the "thinking." In that case, the closest interpretation is (B).

So either (A) or (B) would work; they have roughly the same meaning.

  • yes, except the last sentence: "(A) or (B) [...] have roughly the same meaning."?? A indicates a state, B indicates that an action happened, with no indication of the state at the time of the thinking.
    – njzk2
    Jun 2 at 21:24
  • @njzk2 Sure, in certain contexts there might be a distinction here, but in most contexts I wouldn't see the sentence as genuinely ambiguous.
    – alphabet
    Jun 2 at 22:12

In the original sentence, distributed can be interpreted either as part of a passive voice construction or as a predicate past participle adjective.

To understand it as passive, supply a distributor — an agent:

The board thought that the shares were unjustly distributed among the heirs [by the executors].

To understand it as a predicate adjective, look at a present tense version:

The board thinks that the shares are unjustly distributed among the heirs.

The test interprets it as part of a passive voice construction. The sentence then follows the rules for making an “impersonal passive,” or the passive voice with reporting verbs, as seen here:

  1. subject + passive reporting verb + to-infinitive
    In this pattern we start with the subject of the reported clause, which is followed by the passive reporting verb and the to-infinitive form of the verb in the reported clause:

                Everybody knows that my grandfather likes red wine.
                My grandfather is known to like red wine.

The reporting verb (is known) is in the same tense as it was in the active sentence (knows). The type of to-infinitive we use (to like) corresponds to the temporal relationship between the action of reporting and the reported event. This temporal relationship can be of two basic types:

                • The reporting and the reported event happen simultaneously (as in the example above).
                • The reported event happens before the reporting.

Grammaring — Passive voice with reporting verbs

Here’s as example of a reported event happening before the reporting:

Everybody thought that my grandfather lived in France when he was a child.
My grandfather was thought to have lived in France when he was a child.

This is like your sentence; your reported event (distribution) happened before the reporting:

The board thought that the shares were unjustly distributed among the heirs.
The shares were thought to have been unjustly distributed among the heirs.

(And now you have a full-on double passive.)

  • difference with the grandfather example: the temporal clause "when he was a child" places the event before the reporting. But remove that clause, and you have no indication that it is the case. In fact, in order to be clear "had lived" would be better. In the case of the OP "had been distributed" would clearly indicate the timeline
    – njzk2
    Jun 2 at 21:21
  • @njzk2 — It doesn’t matter; if the OP’s original sentence is passive, the only possibility for the infinitive is the present perfect infinitive. were -> to have been — not *to be. Jun 3 at 14:53
  • "if" (but is it?)
    – njzk2
    Jun 3 at 19:31
  • @njzk2 — If the test-maker says it is, it is. Jun 3 at 22:41

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