A)They had been drowned.
B)They had drowned.

What is the difference between the above two sentences.

(They were looking for the dead bodies of the three boys because they assumed that they 'had been drowned'/ 'had drowned'.)

Which of the two options sound appropriate?


"Drown" is one of a family of verbs (known as ergative, labile or middle-verbs) that has both transitive [with an object] and intransitive use. But the meaning is a little different:

John drowned

This means that John is dead.

Mary drowned John

This also means that John is dead; he was murdered by Mary.

This means that the passive form of the second sentence

John was drowned (by Mary)

Means that John is dead.

So both "John drowned" and "John was drowned" mean that John is dead. The difference is that the second sentence implies that someone murdered John. The first sentence doesn't indicate how John drowned.

So, to compare your sentences the difference is that "They had been drowned" implies that someone had murdered "them". If you don't want to create this implication then: "... because it was assumed that they had drowned" is correct English.

  • +1 We have lots of questions about verbs of this sort, tagged middle-verbs; they're also called ergative or labile verbs. Aug 16 '17 at 20:25
  • The last example is also a bit ambiguous about whether it's passive voice or a copula (I found the body of a man who had clearly died from drowning), and only sometimes clear from context. Aug 16 '17 at 23:44

The first sentence A)

They had been drowned.

says they might have been murdered by somebody submerging them deliberately.

The second sentence B)

They had drowned.

says they died accidentally, perhaps by being trapped by a rising tide.

This would be better, as it is unlikely that three boys were murdered.

  • Would it be useful to explain the difference between the past perfect tense and the use of participles? Aug 16 '17 at 18:49
  • 1
    @A.Galloway the tense is the same in both sentences. Did you mean transitive / intransitive verb? Aug 16 '17 at 18:54
  • Probably. I was mainly thinking about explaining the difference between 'drowning' and 'being drowned' in a general, grammatical sense. Aug 16 '17 at 18:59
  • Thank you very much... 😊 ... The explanation is crystal clear.
    – Ayesha
    Aug 17 '17 at 7:44
  • @Ayesha be sure to accept this answer if it answered your question Aug 18 '17 at 23:04

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