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I came across a sentence that read 'It was the first to be sold online'. It used the passive voice. Why not 'first sold online'? Why is to be used here and when do we use to be in the passive? Thanks

  • In your context, to be is effectively optional. But semantically, if not syntactically, it could also be directly replaced by alternatives such as ...the first that was sold online. It's in the passive because the subject of TO SELL isn't specified. Active would have to be something like Online booksellers sold it first, but there's considerable ambiguity about exactly what that might mean. – FumbleFingers Feb 16 '18 at 15:53
  • @FumbleFingers When it's optional, it's not the passive voice of a verb, it's a past participle functioning as an adjective. One could transform it into a subordinate clause "that was sold online"; in this case, it again becomes a full-fledged verb. – tenebris2020 Feb 16 '18 at 15:56
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"Sold online" without the verb "to be" (in its appropriate form) is not the passive voice. It is a past participle, which, on its own, functions as an adjective.

The verb "was" in the beginning of the sentence is not tied to "sold online", so it is not part of the passive.

Compare the following sentences,

— He was the first to notice that something was wrong.

— From all the children in the family, April was the first one to open her Christmas presents.

As you see, here we are simply talking about someone being "the first (one)" to do something.

So we are dealing with the following construction,

to be the first (one) + Infinitive

In your sentence, something was the first..... to be sold (which is the Infinitive form of a passive construction).

The first "was" has nothing to do with "sold", it is tied to "the first" (to be the first). So, in order for there to be a passive after that, that passive must contain the verb "to be" in some form.

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