The sentence is: "I am surprised." I wonder why it cannot be considered as the passive form of "Someone surprises me." If it is true that it is in passive form, then why do people say that surprised is an adjective in that sentence? Please clarify this. I'm in confusion.


6 Answers 6


Well, of course it can be considered as a passive voice construction.  The active voice equivalent is quite easy to find:

  • I am surprised.
  • Something (or someone) surprises me.

The sentence can be understood in this manner, but that doesn't mean that it can only be understood this way.  There's another possibility:

  • I am surprised.
  • I am a surprised man.

The word "surprised" is a participle.  Participles and participial phrases can modify nouns in much the same way as adjectives.  Some grammar books simply call them adjectives when they're used this way. 

If I am a happy man, I can simply say "I am happy."  If I do say that, then "happy" can be understood as a predicate adjective subject complement. 

We can understand the "surprised" of your original sentence in the same way. 

As it happens, "surprised" is a stative verb -- or, at least, it's a verb that's often used in a stative sense.  Both the passive voice interpretation and the subject complement interpretation are available for your original sentence.  For a stative verb, the subject complement interpretation is likely to be more useful and, for many, the more obvious interpretation.

it's not a matter of which interpretation is correct.  Both are correct.  It's only a matter of which interpretation makes more sense in context.  If you can see both interpretations easily, then you should be able to easily choose between them as context requires.  You may also find that, in many contexts, the overall meaning of the entire passage won't change no matter which interpretation you choose.

You may also want to note that "to be" isn't the only possible copular verb.  There's a handful of verbs that work in copular constructions:

  • He is surprised.
  • He seems surprised.
  • He looks surprised.
  • He sounds surprised.

You're free to interpret "He is surprised" as a passive voice construction.  For every other verb that fits this same pattern (and my examples are far from exhaustive) only the subject complement interpretation is obvious.


This is an answer in progress. Expect a lot of downvotes. I accept that this is an answer in progress. Yet I have placed a 500-point bounty over at the ELU question that allegedly has a canonical answer to your question: How can I reliably and accurately identify the passive voice in writing or speech?. Perhaps a better answer than exists over there will be posted. Meanwhile I present some incipient thought formations.

According to some linguists, the following is presented:


Someone surprises me.


I am surprised by someone.


I am surprised

cannot be the passive of Someone surprises me.

Can it be the passive of anything? Perhaps the passive of

It surprises me.

But this "requires" an agent, even if unstated:

I am surprised (by it).

Apparently, there is a difference between stative passives and a sentence that uses a participle as an adjective.

An opt-cited example of an ambiguous constuction is

The window was broken.

We are supposed to ask:

1 Does this sentence denote "an (passivised) action", as in

The window was broken by Harry.


2 Does this sentence denote a "state being the result of an action" as in

The window was broken (rather than intact or unbroken)

This may or not be fine. But I find the purported difference rather vague:


The window was broken at the very moment that I saw Harry break it.

What does this sentence "denote"? Is it passive construction or an adjectival one? That is: one or the other, depending on what the speaker intends? What if the speaker intends both meanings at the same time?

Something similar might be said of

I am surprised.

Allegedly this can be analyzed and accorded either a "passive structure" (be it a "stative passive") or some other structure, such as a predicate adjective, comparable to

I am happy.

Well, all good and handy. Except that linguistic analysis by some schools of linguistics leave me rather unhappy.

For example, if I say

I am surprised.

then no matter how this sentence or utterance is classified, it fails to be able to recognize that me bring surprised is probably the result of some "action."

Let's take a less isolated sentence.

If I tell my partner (wife, roommate, friend, etc):

I am surprised that you haven't washed the dishes.

Is the first clause (I am surprised) a passive construction or is it an adjectival construction? Some will quickly say adjectival. But one may beg to differ. Is it not equivalent to

I am surprised by your nothavingwashedthedishes.

Thus, surely there is something that has caused me to be surprised (even if that something is something entirely within, like a constant state reached by mediation). But take:

I am surprised with you, son.

Is this a stative passive or an adjective? Good luck with that one.

Or Consider:

I was surprised when I got home.

The reader might ask: well what surprised you when you got home? Was the picture window broken?

In fact, nothing surprised me when I got home. I was already (or still) in a "surprised state" when I got home, due to having just seen an opera that surprised me.

The fact is, no one has satisfactorily demonstrated whether

I am surprised

is a passive, be it a stative passive, or an adjectival construction. Even though some people try really hard.

The same can be said for the allegedly passive sentence (used in that answer):

The documents were printed.

Hmmm, this could be a passive construction. Then again, it could be analyzed as an adjective:

The documents were printed, not hand-written.

What about:

The documents were all printed and ready to go.

("Stative") Passive or adjective?

It depends on the context, comes the reply of certain linguists. Yet, because no matter how much more context is provided, we can always come up with an ambiguous sentence....

In the end, does it matter? Do you know what the sentence means without being able to classify it?


The verb am (to be) here is a copular verb and surprised. is a complement to the subject and specifies the state of the subject.

You can, however, turn it into a passive through specification:

  • I am surprised. no passive, am = copular verb
  • I am surprised by your ignorance. passive
  • Your ignorance surprises me. active

In the passive sentence, by your ignorance is the agent, which turns into the subject when you convert the sentence to the active voice.

The difference is simply that you need something that does the surprising, otherwise you're just expressing the state in which the subject is.

  • Do you want to say that the following sentence is incorrect? → "Someone surprises me."
    – Gurpreet
    May 29, 2015 at 12:46
  • No, but the active version of that sentence would be: I am surprised by someone.
    – Vlammuh
    May 29, 2015 at 12:47
  • 1
    I guess you could. But to avoid confusion you could specify the agent so that it is clear that you are talking about the action of being surprised by someone or something rather than being in a surprised state. What you could do is say 'I got surprised'. The verb 'to get' can be used as a passive, but not as a copular verb so by using that you can avoid ambiguity.
    – Vlammuh
    May 29, 2015 at 13:09
  • 1
    I'll definitely accept your answer if don't get a better answer as per the rules of stackexchange. I shouldn't make haste in accepting the answer, however, it may be a favourite answer.
    – Gurpreet
    May 29, 2015 at 13:23
  • 1
    Of course, I totally agree
    – Vlammuh
    May 29, 2015 at 13:32

The “stative passive” or “false passive”, as some people above have defined or laid out, is not really passive at all. It is instead the sentence structure containing a participle being used as an adjective. The Wikipedia page that is linked is a little confusing, but in it, one can find that stative passives are just a sentence/structure in which the participle is—again—just describing a state of something, or to better put it, it is functioning as an adjective.

People tend to over complicate situations like “I was surprised.” But, when it comes down to it, it all revolves around context, especially if there isn’t any other indictators like agents (“by”). Furthermore, I like to think that participle always contain some sort of adjectival aspect to them. It just just comes in different degrees.

So, when someone says, “I was surprised,” look to see if there is something in the context saying that someone or something is trying to “surprise.”


" I am surprise" in this sentence "am" is used as "be" form of verb so this sentence can't be turned into passive. Rule- If any form of "be" is used as main verb, the sentence can't be turned into passive voice. Example- 1.He should be polite. 2. He is doctor. 3. He is teacher. Etc... These sentences can't be converted into passive voice.

  • The question doesn't ask if the sentence can be made passive, it asks if the sentence is passive.
    – Chenmunka
    May 10, 2019 at 14:31

"I am surprised."

One may take it for an agentless passive and its active counterpart is : 'Someone / something surprises me.'

The sentence represents a 'mixed' or semi-passive class, having active analogues.

However, the scale is tilted in favour of an adjectival analysis. Even the ability to take an agent by-phrase cannot be regarded as diagnostic of the passive construction. (A by-phrase may occur in a NP as postmodifier : "poems by Wordsworth".)

Actually, the PP (by/other preposition + noun) can't be diagnostic of the passive voice : "I was surprised at her behaviour". The by-phrase has been given an instrumental interpretation (by = with).

More evidently, it can be and should be analysed as having an adjectival complement following a copular verb :

"I was/felt/seemed tired/surprised."

The adjectival properties are proved by the following :

(1) coordinating the participle with an adjective : "I was surprised and content."

(2) modifying the participle with 'very', 'quite', 'rather', 'more': "I was very surprised."

(3) replacing 'be' by a lexical copular verb such as 'feel' or 'seem' : "I felt surprised."

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