The English Passive: the mystery of ‘there are’

For some reason making passive sentences in English is something many Dutch people have trouble dealing with. It’s the one grammar function that takes up most of my time in class when I try to explain it and it’s the one construction my students get wrong the most. However, passives in English need not be that hard if you keep a little Dutch in the back of your head, but not too much…

Consider the following:

I write a letter.

This is what we call and active sentence (A). It is called an active sentence because the subject of the sentence (I) is doing the action of the verb (write). A passive sentence (P) is a sentence in which the subject does NOT perform the action of the verb. I can make the sentence above into a passive one quite easily:

A letter is written (by me).

All I did was take the direct object from (A) and make it the subject of (P). A letter cannot write itself, so the verb form changes from active to passive: write becomes is written.

Easy as pie right? Well not for plenty of Dutch learners of English. However, Dutch passives follow a very similar pattern:

A: Ik schrijf een brief (I write a letter)

P: Een brief wordt geschreven (door mij) (A letter is written (by me))

It’s almost a one on one translation, except for ‘wordt’ (literal translation: becomes) and ‘door’ (literal translation: through).

The main point of struggle seems to be ‘there are…’ constructions. These are a specific kind of passive, which are used more in Dutch than in English. Consider the following:

E: There are three eggs in the basket.

D: Er zitten drie eieren in het mandje.

Here, the constructions are the same, apart from the usage of the verb. In English, you always get there + are or is (to be). In Dutch, you get er (there) + zijn (to be), zitten (to sit), liggen (to lie), staan (to stand), etc. So, in Dutch we have some more variations of the verb, depending on the action of the objects. In this case the eggs ‘are sitting’ in the basket***.

But now have a look at this:

E: Three CD-players are missing.

D: Er missen drie CD-spelers.

*E: There are missing three CD-players. (literal translation)

Obviously, the last English example is incorrect, but it is actually the construction my students use all the time. In fact, while grading a new batch of exams on formal letter writing yesterday, this was the most common mistake. Not a single student got the construction right. This is a case of what I call: The Dutch brain getting in the way.

It is obvious that the two sentences ‘Er missen drie CD-spelers’ and ‘Er zitten drie eieren in het mandje’ convey a completely different meaning. ‘Er zitten drie eieren in het mandje’ refers to a specific location of the items. The other sentence ‘Er missen drie CD-spelers’ doesn’t refer to a place, but to the fact that something is missing.

No matter how hard I try, this just never registers in students’ brains. So my question to you is: Do you have any tips on how I can explain this (better) to my students? Any tips & tricks?

*** To explain the specifics of when to use zitten, liggen & staan, I would have to make a new blog post.

4 responses to “The English Passive: the mystery of ‘there are’”

  1. Ik denk dat het ook wel komt omdat je het moet vertalen. Als ik zelf een brief ofzo zou schrijven, dan had ik de zin wel goed gehad, maar als ik het zou moeten vertalen, van NL naar EN, zie ik mezelf die fout ook écht wel maken!

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