I have an ambiguity that a given sentence is using the passive voice or not. The sentence is:

I was annoyed because they were late.

Can you please advise me about my doubt?

  • 1
    There are two verbs in your sentence. Which one do you suspect might be in passive voice?
    – JMB
    Jun 1, 2020 at 14:42

2 Answers 2


You would not normally consider this to be "passive voice". "They were late" is (I hope) clearly an adjective "late".

And in the first part "Annoyed" is also an adjective. So the easiest way to parse "I was annoyed" is "subject-verb-complement" (and the complement is the adjective "annoyed")

It is possible to parse it as a passive voice "I was annoyed (by them) because they were late". In this case the adjective is the same as the past participle. There are many adjectives like this. Usually the adjective is assumed, as it is much more common than the passive voice.

Does it matter? Not much. The meaning is pretty much the same, whether you parse it as an adjective or a passive voice.


I can advise you, but I cannot resolve the ambiguity.  There is a reason for that.  My advice is at the end of my response. 


Their tardiness annoyed me. 

The model above is an active voice clause.  We have a subject acting as a semantic agent, a transitive verb, and a direct object acting as a semantic patient


I was annoyed by their tardiness. 

This model is a passive-voice clause.  We have a subject acting as a semantic patient, a verb construction that includes a form of the verb to be along with the so-called past-participle form of a transitive verb, and finally an optional prepositional phrase representing the semantic agent

The passive voice does not require an expressed agent.  The clause "I was annoyed" is enough to imply that something annoyed me.  When an agent for a passive-voice clause is explicitly expressed, that agent is usually introduced by the preposition "by".  We can treat the prepositional phrase as an adjunct of the verb construction. 


I was annoyed because they were late. 

This model sentence has two clauses.  The matrix clause, which takes up the entire sentence, still uses the same passive-voice construction.  The subordinate clause "because they were late" has no transitivity and no voice.  The verb construction here is simply "were", which is a linking verb.  For it, there is no passive-voice version because there is no active-voice original. 

We can treat the subordinate clause the same as the prepositional phrase above.  They are both adjuncts of the construction "was annoyed".  They both indicate the agent which acted upon the patient subject. 


Here is the reason I cannot resolve the ambiguity: it is not merely in your mind.  It is in the language. 

James K provided an opinion completely different than mine.  Although completely different, it is still a good opinion. 

For me, the passive-voice parsing is the easiest, most direct and most obvious.  The "was annoyed" of the matrix clause is the verb construction we use to express the passive voice, past tense, indefinite aspect and indicative mode.  That is something which is formally taught.  Once learned, it's something that leaps from the page. 

It seems that, for James, the subject-complement parsing is the simplest, most basic and most obvious.  The "was" of that matrix clause is exactly the same as any other linking-verb use of to be.  The entire coherent participial phrase "annoyed because they were late" can do the same job as a simple adjective like "angry", serving as the argument of the copula and modifying its subject as a complement. 

Both parsings eventually lead to the same overall semantics for the sentence.  There is an ambiguity, but that ambiguity doesn't cause problems. 


My advice is this: Don't try to resolve the ambiguity.  Instead, try to understand it.  On the one hand, it helps to explain why English verb conjugation works the way that it does.  On the other, it affords a better understanding of how participles work in English. 

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