Simple States or Passive Voice?

simple passive verb formsI recently had a question through this website but the return email didn’t work, so I’ve posted my answer in the hope that the reader sees it! It relates to spotting the difference between the past simple and the passive voice – specifically, how we can use different verb forms to follow the verb to be. Here we go:

“Do we say:

  1. You are welcome or welcomed?
  2. Is the window open or opened?

Why either way? Any rules to apply?”

In both of these examples, the first choice is most correct. The present simple is used with an adjective form of a verb to describe a present/current state/condition.

  • “You are welcome” = You have the quality of being welcome at this moment
  • “Is the window open?” = A question of if the window has the condition of being open now

This is based on the rule that we use the present simple and adjectives to describe present states, in the same way that we say “I am happy.” or “The cake smells nice.” Welcome and open, in these examples, are adjectives, not verbs.

The first option is only mostly correct, however, because it depends on context. You could use the verb to be with the past verb form (the past participle) for a different meaning. “You are welcomed” or “The window is opened” are grammatically correct statements in the passive voice (verb to be + past participle).

Passive statements are used for particular reasons – usually to talk about the effect of an action, rather than who/what did it. For example, in this case, we might put emphasis on the result that someone has been welcomed, or that the window is opened rather than closed. However, in the present tense (are/is) the passive voice would usually be used to refer to a rule or routine, something timeless, rather than a particular state.

  • “The windows is opened at 9am every morning.” – in this case, the passive voice describes the action as a routine, without describing who does it.

The difference may be subtler in the past tense:

  • He was welcome.
  • He was welcomed.

The first sentence, a simple state, uses welcome as an adjective – he had the quality of being welcome. The second sentence, in the passive voice, describes the action, with welcome in the past participle form – the action of him being welcomed was completed.

This makes things complicated for the original question, because the correct use depends on the purpose of the sentence. The present simple is most likely what you need here, to describe a state – “You are welcome” and “The window is open” are the simple, present forms being used to describe a current state – but if we want to create a sentence in the passive voice, then the past participle is necessary.

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