The Grammarphobia Blog

Passive aggression

Q: I teach English to businesspeople around Cologne, Germany. I was explaining the use of the present perfect passive when a student asked me if there was a continuous form of it. I know there is, but I find it awkward and wonder if it has any use in the real world. What are your thoughts?

A: The present perfect continuous passive tense is a monster. It’s theoretically correct, but only rarely is it good idiomatic English.

As an example, since this is the holiday season, let’s use the verb “give.”

(1) Present: “I give gifts.”

(2) Present perfect: “I have given gifts all my life.”

(3) Present perfect passive: “I have been given gifts all my life.”

Now if you toss in the continuous element, you come up with this monstrosity:

(4) Present perfect continuous passive: “I have been being given gifts all my life.”

Semantically, we can see no difference between #3 and #4. Furthermore, we can see no reason for using #4.

The purpose of the present perfect passive is usually to express a previous action that has continued to the present—in other words, continuous actions that started in the past.

That being the case, the present perfect passive already has an element of continuity built in. 

Only rarely does the continuous “being” need to be added to the  mix. We can think of one of those rare cases.

Say your car is being serviced and you’ve been waiting impatiently for three hours. Here’s how you might express your feelings.

Present perfect passive: “The car has been serviced for three hours!”

This doesn’t quite express your meaning, so let’s try … 

Present perfect continuous passive: “The car has been being serviced for three hours!”

This expresses your meaning, but the active voice would be more natural: “They’ve been servicing the car for three hours!”

The lesson here is that all sorts of tenses are possible in English, but not all of the possibilities are natural.

So when in doubt about an awkward passive construction, try switching to the active  voice.

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