An article offering an explanation and teaching suggestions on word order in passive questions.

I am teaching pre-intermediate ESOL and I have students who have problems with the word order in passive-tense questions. Can you give me a simple rule that I can tell them which will help them to understand? They would find the following examples confusing: When was the church built? (past participle at the end) and, How much was spent on the building work? (past participle in the middle). For they latter, they tend to put How much was on the building work spent?!!

Frances Sudbury

Hi Frances,

As with many grammatical questions, sometimes things aren’t as easy as they look on the surface. The problem your students were having, we suspect, is not so much to do with passive voice as with different kinds of questions (and their accompanying syntax) in general. What follows is 'the full Monty' grammatical explanation of the word order in those questions and some tips to (hopefully) help you and your students remember.

Mastering the correct word order in these examples crucially depends on an understanding of the grammatical function of the components.

a) When was the church built?

Compare the following two sentences:

The church was built in 1945.

When was the church built?

In the second example, the wh-word (when) fulfils the same grammatical function as the time adverbial (in 1945) shown in the first example. However, in this interrogative structure, the passive subject (the church) is placed after the passive auxiliary verb (was), and the past participle built occurs at the end of the sentence.

b) How much was spent on the building project?

The verb spend is a transitive verb which takes a noun object referring to an amount of time or money, e.g.:

They spent £5000.

It also commonly occurs with a prepositional phrase beginning with on to refer to what object or activity time or money was used for, e.g.:

They spent £5000 on the building work.

The important thing to remember is that when this sentence is put into a passive form, the object referring to the amount (£5,000) becomes the subject of the new sentence, but the prepositional phrase (on the building work) does NOT change position. It still follows the verb spend, e.g.:

£5000 was spent on the building work.

The same rules apply even if the passive sentence forms a question. In this case, the object referring to an amount is represented by the question form how much, and the rest of the structure stays the same, with the prepositional phrase following the verb spend, i.e.:

How much was spent on the building work?

How to help you and your students remember

If you want a simple rule for questions in the passive it would be the following:

Question word + to be + subject + past participle

When was the church built?

This is the basic subject/auxiliary verb inversion which applies to most question forms.

But when you don't know the subject of the question, then the word order stays the same as a normal sentence. In this case, don’t split the verb to be and the past participle:

How much was spent on the building work?

If you (and your learners) are still scratching your heads at this, it’s the same principle as the infamous Who questions (which learners and teachers are more accustomed to dealing with). Consider these two examples:

Who did you phone last night?

Who phoned last night?

The who in each question refers to something different. In the first it is asking about the object of the verb phone. Since we have a subject (you), then question word order (subject/auxiliary verb inversion) is respected. In the second sentence who is asking about the subject of the verb phone. There is therefore no other subject and so the word order is like a normal sentence.

Further practice

An isolated explanation of the rule (whichever way you do it) will not be enough to remedy the problem. Neither will a worksheet full of sentences that your learners have to change to passive (or make questions, or whatever). Your best bet is to provide some practice in this area, and remember to draw attention to both these kinds of passive questions and other questions as they come up during the course (in texts or in students’ writing).