Chinese Grammar: The passive voice with 被
Say something horrible were to happen to Nincha and Lupishu, such as they get thrown into prison, how would you say that in Chinese? First off, you want to use the passive voice, because ending up in prison wasn’t exactly of their choosing. Now that that’s decided, you need to know how to use the passive voice in Mandarin Chinese. Meet 被, a passive marker. It’s not the only way to use the passive voice in Chinese, but 被 is the most common way to do so, so it’s a good one to start with. Let’s learn more about 被 and how to use it to talk about Nincha and Lupishu’s hypothetical terrible predicament.
What is 被?
被 expresses the passive voice in Chinese. 被 can, therefore, be your word of choice to show that an action was done to you or to someone or something by the doer of an action. A good thing to know is that in Mandarin Chinese, the passive voice is frequently used, although not as much as in English. It is mainly used in sentences with a negative meaning: unfortunate circumstances, undesirable outcomes, such as car crashes, objects being stolen, people getting killed, cats getting wet... or Nincha and Lupishu getting thrown into prison.
How to make 被 sentences
One way to think about it is: With 被, something gets verbed.
Now, let’s see the impact of 被 on a whole sentence. Remember the normal sentence structure in Chinese? That’s right: Subject + Verb+ Object
In a passive structure, you need to rearrange how the elements are placed. The Object (recipient of the action) - normally placed at the end of a sentence - becomes the Subject in the passive voice. This is the structure of a 被 sentence:
Subject (Recipient of the action) +被+ Doer of the action (optional) + Verb + Other element
While in English, we’d say “something was verbed by me”, in Chinese you say “Something by me was verbed".
Passive sentences without a doer
Not unlike in English, 被 sentences can also be used in sentences without specifying who did the action, in cases where it’s unimportant, obvious (and you don’t want to have to specify who it was), or where you don’t know who did the action onto the object.
Subject (Recipient of the action)+ 被 + Verb Phrase
When do you use 被?
- As we saw, 被 is used in sentences to indicate one was negatively affected.
Note: You will almost never hear someone say “Someone stole my bike” in Chinese. It’s much more widespread to say “My bike was stolen”.
- It is also used in sentences where you want to place emphasis on the one affected by the action, rather than on the doer.
A few things to know about 被 #
被 likes its verbs to have company
Just like 把, 被 cannot be used with a simple one-syllable verb. A verb form must follow it, that is to say, the verb + something that indicates the result of the action, even if it’s something as simple as 了 to indicate completion. You can also accompany the verb with resultative, degree or directional complements, a particle, and more.
Say you want to say the rice was eaten.
Things you can place before 被
Let’s use this new knowledge to get Nincha and Lupishu out of prison, shall we?
Retake this terrible sentence:
Add a negation:
Much better right? Here's another example:
Note: In a negative passive sentence, you cannot use 了 since the action wasn’t completed.
Modal verbs and adverbs
One last thing
Interestingly, the use of 被 has been evolving in Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps due to the influence of English, Chinese native speakers now have started to use the passive voice for neutral or even positive meanings as well; so you may run into such sentences. Until you get a complete feel for 被, we recommend sticking with 被 for sentences about undesirable, unwanted or unpleasant events. There are other words to express the passive voice for more neutral and positive phrases, which we’ll see together later.
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