The expression to be taken aback is very common; a typical example sentence (that I just made up) would be

I was taken aback by the way she laughed.

However, I sometimes find myself wanting to say this in the active voice:

The way she laughed took me aback.

Something strikes me as not wrong, but decidedly nonstandard about this, but I don't know why. The set expression is X was taken aback by Y, which should be transformable by normal English grammar in to Y took X aback.

Searching in Google Books, I found 23,300 results for "took me aback" and 377,000 for "I was taken aback", which corroborates my intution that while both are grammatically possible, the active version seems less acceptable or at least less common in the register of written English.

So, my question:

  1. Am I correct that "taken aback" is sort of nonstandard in the active?
  2. If so, why? And are there any parallels to other expressions that are pretty much only ever used in the passive? I can't really think of any.

1 Answer 1


The expression may well be found more often in the passive than the active, but that is not to say there is anything nonstandard about the active form. One of the characters in Jerome’s ‘Three Men In A Boat’ says Blest if it didn't quite take me aback. You could say that that was in a colloquial context, but that doesn’t make it nonstandard. The same applies to this from Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’: But when I hear it now, it takes me aback. A third citation, from a less well known author, has 'You take me quite aback,’ said Violet. ‘We can only offer what we have.’ There seems to be nothing nonstandard about that either.

  • 1
    Since the latest of the three references dates from 1889, it would be fair to say that the construction is NOW non-standard.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 10:07
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    You might want to argue that the active use is archaic, or that is rare, but that doesn't make it nonstandard. Citations in both the COCA and the BNC overwhelmingly show the passive form, but there are also records in the COCA such as ‘That took Clarence aback a little’ (2011) and ‘But it took me aback’ (2010), and, in the BNC, ‘The directness of my attack clearly took him aback’ (1991) and ‘The colonists had enough newspapers to take any visiting Englishman aback’ (1984). None of those strikes me as being nonstandard. Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 10:19
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    Google Ngrams doesn't show any decline of usage in the active voice. It shows, rather, an increase of usage in the passive voice, but that doesn't mean that the active is becoming non-standard. Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 13:18
  • Thanks for the references. I like @PeterShor's Ngram - that is pretty good evidence (that I somehow didn't think to look for when composing my question) that the passive version really is way more common. I'd love to see that posted in an answer not a comment.
    – alcas
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 17:45

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