P1: She is said to work 16 hours a day.

P2: It is said that she works 16 hours a day.

The Murphy's grammar says that passive P1 is equivalent to passive P2.

But let's transform these passive statements to their active forms:

A1: Somebody says to her to work 16 hours a day.

A2: Somebody says that she works 16 hours a day.

How can P1 be equivalent to P2 if their active forms have different meanings? In other words P1 may mean either A1 or A2. Should not it cause ambiguity?

  • 4
    P1 and P2 corresponds closely to the active "They say she works 16 hours a day" in meaning.
    – user230
    Nov 21, 2013 at 7:32
  • 1
    @snailboat A: "They tell her to work every day." P: "She is told to work every day." The same with to say I suppose.
    – mosceo
    Nov 21, 2013 at 7:51
  • 5
    Her is an object of tell in tell her, but not an object of say in say to her. The two are different syntactically.
    – user230
    Nov 21, 2013 at 8:30
  • 1
    @snailboat: I have an awkward idea. Since say to somebody always goes with to, this to should retain in passive. "They say to her to work every day." becomes "She is said to to work every day." Have I made an error?
    – mosceo
    Nov 21, 2013 at 8:45
  • 1
    Yes, you have. It's not an object of the verb, so the clause can't be passivized as though it is.
    – user230
    Nov 21, 2013 at 8:48

3 Answers 3


She is said to work 16 hours a day

This is in fact a difficult construction for learners because actually the construction is not grammatical. But it is complicated to show what has happened here. There are several things to explain.

a) The neighbour saw the boy break the window of the house across the street.

Here "to break" is followed by an accusative (object case) + bare infinitive. English can turn such a sentence into passive: The boy was seen to break the window.

b) The officer ordered the soldiers to attack.

Even if in other languages "the soldiers" would be seen as a dative object (indirect object) and other languages would keep the dative object in a passive sentence English does not say:

To the soldiers (it) was ordered to attack.

English shifted the dative to a nominative and says:

The soldiers were ordered to attack.

A passive that in other languages (e.g. German) is not possible. German would maintain the dative in the passive sentence.

This shift of case in passive sentences is a peculiarity of English, simply because dative (without "to") and accusative have the same form. And English does not care whether such a construction is a-grammatical or not.

So if you have a pasive sentence like

She is said to work 16 hours a day (1)

the "she" is a shifted case. Actually is should be

"Of her it is said" to work 16 hours a day.

So you can't turn a sentence such as (1) into an active sentence according to normal rules. Your assumption that the active is

A1: Somebody says to her to work 16 hours a day.

is simply wrong. That isn't the sense of the passive sentence.

The sense is:

People say of her that she works 16 hours a day.

I hope you won't get lost with my explanation. It is the first time that I try to explain such a complicated thing such as passive sentences with shift of case. And it is possible the native speakers don't agree with my view. And I might guess that a lot of native speakers have lost the feeling for the fact that this passive contains a shift of case.

  • 1
    @snailplane You misunderstand me and I was not clear enough. I should have written *"
    – rogermue
    Feb 25, 2014 at 9:46
  • 1
    *"Of her was said to work 16 hours a day". The asterisk means this is no real English. It is meant to show the shift of case.
    – rogermue
    Feb 25, 2014 at 9:51

P1 does not equal A1 in your example. "To" is part of "to work", not part of "said to".

Additionally "it is said" does not mean "someone says". It means "it is alleged" or "Rumor has it that".

Consequently A1 should read:

A1: Rumor has it that she does work 16 hours a day

A2: Rumor has it that she works 16 hours a day

  • 1
    What would be the passive form of A1?
    – mosceo
    Nov 20, 2013 at 20:07
  • 1
    @Graduate Your A1, or Matt's A1?
    – user230
    Nov 21, 2013 at 1:49
  • 1
    @snailboat: mine.
    – mosceo
    Nov 21, 2013 at 6:37
  • 1
    @Graduate I see no way to rewrite A1 in the passive.
    – user230
    Nov 21, 2013 at 7:33
  • 3
    @Graduate A1 Somebody says to her to work 16 hours a day. The verb, say, is inappropriate here. It should be: tell + object. Therefore, A1: "Somebody tells her to work 16 hours a day." can be transformed in the following passive construction: "She is told to work 16 hours a day."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 28, 2014 at 22:31

Passive 1: She is said to work 16 hours a day.

Passive 2: It is said that she works 16 hours a day.

The message is the same in both phrases:

Apparently, she works 16 hours a day.

The speaker does not express his or her opinion directly, instead a passive construction is preferred to distance himself from the statement and to suggest that there is uncertainty to the claim. You can achieve the same affect with the word, apparently (usually at the beginning or end of the phrase) to mean that we have heard / read something, but it may not be true. Matt's answer has the expression: rumour has it which is a more gossipy alternative to apparently, both expressions are very common in speech.

The active forms of the passive sentences are the following:

Active 1: They / People say she works 16 hours a day
Active 2: They / People say she works 16 hours a day

There is no other possible way to interpret and transform the two passive phrases. Nota Bene that with the verb say, the infinitive structure is only possible in the passive

E.g. She is said to work 16 hours a day
(BUT NOT They say she to work 16 hours a day)

His company is said to be on the brink of collapse.
(BUT NOT They say his company to be on the brink of collapse)

The difference is that in A1, the subject of the noun clause, she works, is the subject of the whole sentence in the passive construction P1 She is said to work, whereas in P2 the pronoun, it, is the subject of the passive phrase. The preparatory "it" is used when the subject of a clause is itself another clause.

  • It is said that he knows some influential people.
    They say that...
  • It is expected that the Queen will be announcing her retirement soon.
    They expect that...
  • It is alleged that the Prime Minister had misled the House
    Somebody alleges / some allege that...
  • It is believed that the Italian Government is thinking of raising income taxes.
    Some believe / they believe that...

Sources: Taken and adapted from several photocopies I made over the years from Advanced grammar books for students and teachers whose titles I did not write down, sorry.

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