I am a high school student. While doing my weekly assignment, I came across a question which asks me to write in active voice

Have they been told to be ready?

Can anyone help me out with this one?

  • omg sorry... its have they been told to be ready? – prakash_d22 Oct 15 '12 at 14:03

Has anyone told them to be ready?

is the translation into active voice.


The active voice statement would be Someone told them to be ready. The question simply follows the rule that you insert an auxiliary verb, do or have and invert the subject and auxiliary. We don't know who it is who was or is supposed to tell them to be ready, so I inserted someone.

(A) Has someone told them to be ready?

Another possibility is this:

(B) Has anyone told them to be ready?

The meanings of these two sentences are slightly different, but because you seem to have been given a grammatically incorrect sentence to change from passive to active, you might also be given an answer that a native speaker of British or North American English wouldn't consider normal. I'd say that (A) should be the book's answer, but it might be (B).

  • And there you go. Two different answers. Native speakers don't always agree. Who can you trust, then? :-) – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 14:18
  • As far as I can see, both (a) and (b) are fine depending on the context: e.g. in (a), there's an implication that the potential agents (persons that "someone" can refer to) is fairly restricted compared to (b). In the passive version, that difference isn't encoded, so it's difficult to know which is intended (which is kind of one of the whole points of the passive, that the agent isn't necessarily explicit, which is why this kind of exercise is a bit silly...). – Neil Coffey Oct 15 '12 at 15:06
  • Bill, re “...you seem to have been given a grammatically incorrect sentence to change...”, please point out explicitly whatever grammar error you attribute to the original, “Have they been told to be ready?” – James Waldby - jwpat7 Oct 15 '12 at 16:31
  • @jwpat7: In the original, there was no "been". Then it was edited by Jasper Loy, who added the "been". I said "seem" because the OP expressed such surprise at the addition; however, the OP might have miscopied the sentence. EFL students in Taiwan and Japan do that all the time. – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 22:08
  • @Neil Coffey: The difference in meaning is small, but to be as peevishly pedantic as possible, I'd have to say that the declarative "Anyone told them to be ready" isn't idiomatic, but "Someone told them to be ready" is. Ergo, I said that the 2nd should be the correct answer. I certainly agree that both forms of the question are perfectly fine. The issue is different: What was the test maker thinking? Writers of silly questions are always asking students to read their minds. And you're right about the original sentence illustrating the point of the passive. We don't disagree. :-) – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 22:19

Technically speaking, the answers offered so far aren't the only possibilities.
One might also suggest

"Have you/she/we/they/folks told them to be ready?"

According to common rules, those forms are "supposed" to be translated into the passive like this:

"Have they been told to be ready by you/her/us/them?"

But these questions are artificial (i.e., not used) outside of contexts where the specific person(s) that are doing the telling are being queried--in other words, outside of the context in which the questioner is trying to figure out who it is that might or might not have told them to be ready. This contrasts the likeliest context for asking "Have they been told to be ready?", in which the concern is whether or not they have been told to be ready, and maybe whether or not you told them to (not just anyone).

From the standpoint of pragmatics (in the linguistic sense), because the earlier concern is not the likely focus of the question in "Have they been told to be ready?", it need not be the focus in any translation of the question to the active voice.

And so I submit

"Have you/she/we/they/folks told them to be ready?"

as alternative answers to the question.

  • good explanation +1 – prakash_d22 Oct 16 '12 at 1:24

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