Following is a question from an exercise on active-passive.I am confused between the options because of the clause 'picking up a gun'. Please explain how it should be accounted for in passive voice construction of the sentence.Not sure but somehow I think the answer should be (2) but it is given as (3) in the answer key.I want a detailed explanation.Please.

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    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 15:41

3 Answers 3


Picking is a gerund. It takes a verb (pick) and represents it in the form of a noun.

Let's use two people, Person A (who represents someone) and Person B (who represents him) and analyse the sentence. The sentence tells us:

  1. Person A saw Person B.
  2. Person B was picking up a gun.

We can automatically eliminate (1) and (4) because pick is used a verb and not a noun.

Now we are left with (2) and (3), which, to me, are both acceptable. I must resort to speculation when I say that your book most likely wants you to incorporate the analysis I showed you into your sentences, however long it may make them.

The only problem I can see with using (2) is that by someone could be interpreted as near someone since by does not immediately follow was seen. This may be the reasoning given by your book (if it provides any at all, which I assume it does not).

  • The ambiguity in (2) would become even more problematic if a learner used that construction with other nouns. He was seen picking up a book by someone. Perhaps the textbook doesn't want to teach that that construction is okay because it could be misunderstood in too many contexts. I'm just throwing more guesses out there, though. Technically speaking, I believe picking is a participle (and adjective) here, not a gerund, but +1, anyway! Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 19:40

You can immediately exclude options 1 and 4.

He was definitely seen picking up and not pick up although he could be seen to pick up as an alternative construction.

Most native English speakers would opt for 2, as in:

He was seen picking up a gun by someone sitting in a car.

Number 3 changes the emphasis slightly to stress the time when he was seen, rather than the action:

"He was seen by someone when (at the moment that) he was picking up a gun."

3 is also correct - just laying the emphasis on the time rather than the action.

But I can see no reason why 3 should be preferred to 2.

What you can't say is that:

He was seen by someone picking up a gun as it's ambiguous. In this construction the person who saw him might have been the person picking up the gun.

  • Glad to find that I wasn't the only one who accepted both answers!
    – Kman3
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 19:24

We can discount #1 and #4 because they use the wrong tense (pick instead of picking).

In the original, what was seen wasn’t “him” per se, it was the action of him picking up the gun. #2 is therefore more accurate on this account than #3 since #2 ties the picking more closely with what was seen. #3 allows the interpretation that the ‘someone’ saw him at the time of the action, but didn’t witness the action itself.

Also, the phrase “by someone” used in the answers is implied by the word “seen” and may be dropped in a passive construction.

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