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What is the passive voice of "A rolling stone gathers no moss"? Some people write it as- 'No moss is gathered by a rolling stone'. Is that correct? I think the preposition could be on if it is used in a non-idiomatic sense, that is to mean: 'No moss can grow on a rolling stone."

Of course, it cannot be treated as a proverb here, but just a statement for the purpose of grammatical exercise. Some grammar books in our schools contain such questions without providing the answers, leaving the teachers (of ESL) in a sort of a 'moral dilemma' of whether to distort the proverb or not.

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  • Well, that's what it means, of course, but it's not the grammar construction called "Passive with Agent Phrase", which is probly what your teacher wants. But as noted, it's silly to change this into passive. Mar 28 at 21:42
  • It might sound silly, but a good number of other proverbial sentences are often used in grammatical exercises for the sake of learning English syntax, and even asked in examinations in India (and probably in a few other countries). So, they're treated merely as sentences, not as proverbs.
    – Manoj Tudu
    Mar 29 at 19:04
  • Perhaps, but this stack exchage is about "learning English", not about "doing a test in India and perhaps other countries".
    – James K
    Mar 29 at 21:03
  • @JamesK, Right. But since India and other "non-English" countries face such problems with English, I do hope SE can help out. Don't get me wrong- I've just elaborated the situation.
    – Manoj Tudu
    Mar 31 at 20:34

1 Answer 1

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Short answer: the phrase is always active, you shouldn't change this proverb to a passive form.

However, consider the semantic role played by "A rolling stone". You can consider this to be either the agent, (the thing that does the gathering) or the location (the place where the moss gathers).

If you consider this to be an agent, then the agent in the passive voice is marked by a "by". On the other hand if you consider that "A rolling stone" isn't the agent by just the location, then "No moss is gathered on a rolling stone." is a valid sentence.

However, if you say "on a rolling stone", then I will ask "Who, or what, would gather the moss?" The passive voice sentence is: "No moss is gathered on a rolling stone (by someone)" So the "on a rolling stone" sentence is literally equivalent to "Someone doesn't gather any moss on a rolling stone."

All of which is rather silly and not at all idiomatic, because the "rolling stone" is a metaphor it doesn't mean "a small, spherical piece of rock" it means "a person who doesn't live in one place for a long time".

So, in short, don't form the passive voice of this well known proverb.

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