Please convert Waste not, want not to the passive voice.

(This was asked in an exam, by the way.)

Normally, converting a sentence to the passive voice requires a clear subject and object, which makes the inversion obvious. However, this common aphorism is phrased in the imperative, with only an implied subject and object.


  1. Can the imperative be phrased in the passive voice?
  2. Is it possible to convert this aphorism to the passive voice?
  3. If possible, can it still be phrased in the imperative, or does it need to be completely changed?
  • I went ahead and reopened the question because the community had an interest in answering it. In the future you shouldn't expect other people to include this detail for you. See: Please, everyone… details – ColleenV Jan 4 '18 at 20:00

This is a terrible question, but not for the reasons given.

EDIT: It has been correctly pointed out in a comment that only I had initially declared this question to be "terrible." I find it terrible because it was apparently given on an exam and has no unequivocally correct answer. This does not entail a criticism of the original poster. Nor did I mean to imply that Andrew was criticizing the original poster for the ambiguity of a question that was posed to the original poster. I apologize for inadvertently implying that Andrew meant anything other than a criticism of the student's teacher. There have been other criticisms of the question, such as misspelling and mangling a stock phrase, but I find them petty. END EDIT.

Passive imperatives are allowed in English. Some examples follow.

"Publish and be damned." One of my favorite quotations.

"Please be advised."

"Be warned."

"Be gone at once and never darken my door again."

Passive imperatives are rare and perhaps a bit old-fashioned, but it is incorrect to imply that they are impossible. (I recognize that the comments and answers have not explicitly stated that passive imperatives are grammatically impossible, but I fear that is how a learner will interpret them.)

Moreover, it is clearly true that the general sense of "waste not, want not" can be expressed passively: "if naught is wasted, naught will be wanted." Admittedly, the imperative form has been lost as has the concise vigor of the saying.

And finally I agree that this particular saying cannot be recast using passive imperatives. The reason for that, however, is that imperatives must have as their implied subjects sentient beings, such as people or animals. (There is an exception with regard to personified things.) The implied object of "waste" and "want" is money or food or some other thing viewed as a thing of use.

I am sorry to have to disagree with people whose views I generally admire, but I think this question requires a subtler answer than it has yet received.

  • "imperatives must have as their implied subjects sentient beings, such as people or animals. I'd quibble with that. "Start, you stupid car, start!" "Shine on, harvest moon" Etc. "exception with regard to personified things" I suppose you could say that all such statements are personifying the subject by definition, but then your statement comes down to "the subject of an imperative must be a sentient being, or something that we are addressing as if it were a sentient being", or to put it another way, "must be a sentient being, except when it's not". :-) – Jay Jan 4 '18 at 20:13
  • @Jay Exactly. Just what I was saying. One does not say to a doorway "Put a wreath on." One may say to a car "Start, damn you." In the first case, we do not personify. In the second we do. – Jeff Morrow Jan 5 '18 at 1:23
  • Well, but we don't say to a door "Put a wreath on it" because the door is not capable of putting a wreath on itself. The car is presumably capable of starting. One might, I suppose, say to a door, "Don't drop that wreath again". Yes, it's all personification in the sense that we are implying that the object can listen to our commands and respond. The point I was trying to make is just that it's something people say pretty routinely. It suddenly occurs to me that some inanimate objects ARE capable of listening and responding, like, "Siri, get me a list of Mexican restaurants" – Jay Jan 5 '18 at 4:48

Mari-LouA is correct, and this sentence is in imperative, with no object, and only an implied subject:

Hey! You! Don't waste!

You can't really create the passive voice without an object. The best you can do here is to convert the sentence to a conditional, and include the implied subject and implied object:

If you don't waste something, you won't want it.

This can be made passive:

If something isn't wasted, it won't be wanted.

However this is not in the imperative, so it's not really the same sentence.

Is this the right answer? Only your instructor can know. These kind of questions are more about reading the instructor's mind, than learning good English.

  • "Is this the right answer?" Sure, the question doesn't have a single, correct answer. But lots of test questions don't. "Give 3 examples of ..." "Who was the most important ... justify your answer" etc. – Jay Jan 4 '18 at 20:18

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