PASSIVE: “They are likely to be punished.”
 (A) It is likely that they will be punished.
 (B) It is likely for someone to punish them.
 (C) It is likely that someone will punish them.
 (D) Someone is likely to punish them.

This is a question put in an entrance exam.

I googled but couldn't find the answer. To me, all of them seem confusingly correct. But only one must be correct.

  • All of them seem correct? There is one where the main thought is expressed in passive voice. So, this one should be eliminated easily. Also, read your question carefully - it doesn't ask you to look for all sentences in the active voice, but the one where: "They are likely to be punished" is converted to active. Try to convert it yourself, without looking at the solutions, and let us know what you've come up with and whether you are still stuck :-)
    – Lucky
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 19:01
  • 5
    I don't think the exam question is very theoretically sound. The main clause isn't passive, so of course it has no active equivalent. We can probably rule out (A), but I don't see any grounds to choose between the remaining answers.
    – user230
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 19:44
  • 1
    Maybe the test makers are treating be likely to as a modal semi-auxiliary (Quirk et al 1985 p.143).
    – user230
    Commented May 24, 2015 at 6:34
  • This is a bad question if it asks you to find the active version of "They are likely to be punished". Sadly, the test makers are not likely to be whipped.
    – TimR
    Commented May 24, 2015 at 12:07
  • @TRomano Why is it a bad question? They've given the options to choose the answer from. Can't the correct answer be chosen from the given options as the correct active form of the given passive sentence?
    – Gurpreet
    Commented May 24, 2015 at 12:12

3 Answers 3


I think I've figured out what your test makers want, so I'm adding a little bonus information to go with the other answers.

The test makers are probably treating be likely to as a modal semi-auxiliary. The following quote is from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al 1985), pages 143-144:

The semi-auxiliaries consist of a set of verb idioms which express modal or aspectual meaning and which are introduced by one of the primary verbs have and be; eg:

be able to, be bound to, be likely to, be supposed to, be about to, be due to, be meant to, be willing to, be apt to, be going to, be obliged to, have to

The boundaries of this category are not clear; they might be extended, for example, to include the negative be unable to, be unwilling to, etc [...]

[These semi-auxiliaries] resemble auxiliaries in permitting synonymous passives and there-constructions in accordance with the criterion of subject-independence [...]:

Brazil is going to win the World Cup.
〜 The World Cup is going to be won by Brazil.
Several home teams are going to be beaten tomorrow.
〜 There are going to be several home teams beaten tomorrow.

This isn't an especially well defined category, nor is it one that everyone acknowledges in terms of theory. And these strings are really unlike modal auxiliaries in most respects. But let's ignore all that. Let's take this idea and run with it! We'll treat be likely to something like would:

Someone is likely to punish them.
Someone would punish them.

They are likely to be punished by someone.
They would be punished by someone.

So they probably want answer D, just like the other answers said.


Passive voice verbs to be + -ed form of verb, but the important aspect of passive voice is a flip of object and subject, taking any typically person or person-like subject out. For example:

I am looking for the treasure - The treasure is being looked for.

We are working on the project - The project is being worked on.

The team prevents problems - Problems are prevented.

So ...

A and C add the word "will" which is not in the original sentence. While I would assume from the original sentence that they will be punished (esp. with use of the term likely), option B and D don't include the word will it so that gives cause to eliminate A and C, in my opinion.

B is using "for" in a weird way that I'm not sure makes complete sense, but it changes the meaning.

I would choose D for the answer.


This is a good question to test a person's knowledge of passive/active. Only d is the active form of the sentence given. This question would not cause any problems to any student of English who had studied the grammar. "Somebody" is frequently used in active to indicate the unknown subject. Even today it is better not to rely on Google for everything.

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