Restrictions in Using Passive Voice in Romanian

Both in English and Romanian, the passive is syntactically characterized by a special organization of the sentence, the so-called passive construction which has the following features.

  •  The subject in the active construction is placed in a postverbal position of prepositional complement of the verb, the so-called agent complement. The position has a status of optional complement, being possible to be omitted from any passive construction: Ion citește cartea./John is reading the book. → Cartea este citită (de (catre) Ion)./ The book is being read by John.
  • The direct object in the active construction becomes a subject, changing its syntactic hierarchy. Any nominal, animated or unanimated, and any type of clause, conjunctional or relative can be a passive subject: Elevul este lăudat de profesor./ The student is praised by the teacher., Cartea este citită de elev./ The book is being read by the student., La sfârșitul zilei, era deja cunoscut cine este autorul crimei./ At the end of the day, it was already known who was the author of the crime., La sfârșitul zilei a fost anunțat că s-a descoperit autorul crimei./ At the end of the day, it was announced that the author of the crime had been found.

In Romanian, there are three types of passive constructions, according to “Gramatica limbii romane”, II: passive with “a fi”, reflexive-passive, and lexical passive.
The first two types of passive are the equivalent of the English passive voice.
There are restrictions in using passive voice, either concerning the three types of passive, or specific to only one of them.
The restrictions common to all three forms of passive are either semantic or semantic-syntactic.
Syntactic restrictions regard, on the one hand, the incapacity of the intransitive and ergative verbs to form a passive construction, and, on the other hand, the incapacity of the verbs with weak transitivity to accept the passive construction.

Ergative verbs occur in apparently passive constructions, in which the patient is placed as subject (Soarele apune., Frunzele cad. Fântânile seacă. Mâncarea se arde.). These constructions can occur in pairs, a transitive one and an intransitive-ergative one, giving the impression of achieving the opposition active-passive (Negustorii cresc prețurile.- Prețurile cresc., Gospodina arde mâncarea.- Mâncarea se arde., Căldura coace fructele.- Fructele se coc.).

Actually, ergative constructions lack the passive meaning; the two verbs from the transitive construction and its intransitive pair are not linked by a passive relation, they represent distinct lexical units.

Semantic-syntactic restrictions regard non-agentive transitive verbs, which are more unlikely to become passive than the agentive verbs. However, among non-agentive verbs, those psychological whose experimenter occurs as a subject can form passive constructions. (El este iubit/ stimat/ disprețuit de colegi.)

The following categories of verbs cannot occur in passive constructions:

  • transitive verbs which indicate the physical state (Mă doare capul., Mă furnică spatele., Mă ustură stomacul.);
  • psychological transitive verbs whose experimenter occurs as a direct object (Mă interesează cartea., Mă impresionează situația., Mă afectează suferința voastră., Mă uimește minciuna.);
  • locative transitive verbs whose locative occurs as a subject (Butoiul conține apa., Titlul cuprinde/include greșeli., Rochia mă încape.);
  • relational transitives of equivalence (Metoda constituie/reprezintă o noutate.)

Each type of passive has its own restrictions, regarding their particularities of structure and use. More or less, these restrictions have already been presented above. Comparing the prototypic passive and the passive-reflexive, results that the latter has more numerous restrictions, regarding its feature of occurrence only in the 3rd and 6th person.

Consequently, any transitive verb which requires as selected peculiarity a nominal – direct object with the [+ Human] feature restricts its use only for 3rd and 6th person, being impossible the occurrence of passive-reflexive constructions from active correspondents such as:
Profesorul ma/te/ne/va ajuta., Ion ma/te/ne/va lauda.

There is also the inverse situation in which verbs do not accept prototypic passive (for example modal verbs: a putea, a vrea: *este putut, *este vrut), but they accept the reflexive-passive construction (Nu se poate să…, Nu se vrea să…). The current use has recorded a rise in the number of such constructions: Nu se vrea să se facă capitalism in Romania, IVLRA, S-a încercat și nu s-a putut, iar acum nici nu se mai vrea., TV, 2004.

The transitive verbs used in an absolute way cannot undergo passivization with “a fi”, only the passive-reflexive form (Se mănâncă mult., Se citește mult în România., but *Este mâncat mult., *Este citit mult în România.). This is a proof that they are more like intransitives than transitives.

Comparing the first two types of passive with the lexical passive, we can see that the latter features additional restrictions, connected to the characteristics of the nonfinite verbal forms, in general, and to the characteristics of the two forms (participle and supine) especially. The participles with the highest degree of adjectivization, which are very far from the verbal nature of the base (fata entuziasmata/interesata) lose their passive meaning even when they come from transitive verbs.  The supines in personal constructions whose subject is controlled by the personal subject of an active verbal regent cannot have a passive meaning (Ma apuc de citit., Termin de citit., Ma pun pe invatat.).


1. Avram, Mioara, Gramatica pentru toţi, Bucureşti, Editura Humanitas, 1997;

2. Brinton, D.M., Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Heinle and Heinle Publishers, 1991;

3. Chomsky, N., Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, M.I.T. Press, 1965;

4. Common European Framework of Reference for Languages;

5. Dictionary of Contemporary English, Longman, 2003;

6. Dimitriu, C., Tratat de gramatica a limbii române, Institutul European Iași, 1999;

7. Graver, B.D., Advanced English Practice, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 1986;

8. Gramatica limbii române, vol.I, Cuvântul, Bucureşti, Editura Academiei Române, 2005;

9. Greenbaum, S., Quirk R., Student’s Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1990;

10. Harmer, J., How to teach English, Longman, 2007;


prof. Liliana Dumitrescu

Liceul Teoretic Tudor Arghezi, Târgu Cărbunești (Gorj) , România
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