Which one of the following sentences is correct and why? Are there any other options? I'm not sure about the usage of "was", "has" and "on" in this situation.

  1. This building caught fire
  2. This building was caught on fire
  3. This building caught on fire
  4. This building has caught fire

I would like to use this to say that an abandoned building caught fire many years ago.

Related: catch fire; catch on fire , but it does not address the "was" part.

  • What are you trying to say? All of them may be correct depending on the situation.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 22:30
  • That an abandoned building caught fire many years ago.
    – rcpinto
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 22:31
  • 3
    All except "was caught on fire" are acceptable because "to catch fire" is not transitive, and so the passive is a no-go.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 22:44

2 Answers 2


If you are specifically talking about something in the past, your best bet is option one or three. They're both correct for your usage and they both mean the same thing. The preposition "on" is discretionary - you can use it or not.

In your exact sentence, I recommend omitting "on".

The abandoned building caught fire many years ago.

You do not want to use version two. It sounds a bit odd to me as a native speaker. There are probably cases where it would be acceptable but it doesn't feel natural.

Version four is perfectly fine but not in your example case. The "has" implies that the building is currently in flames and it happened recently... which, since you're talking about something that occurred many years ago, would be incorrect.

Note that it may be helpful to continue your sentence to explain what the end result was.

The abandoned building caught fire many years ago but was rescued by the local fire department.
The abandoned building caught fire many years ago and burned to the ground.


1, 3 and 4 are all acceptable.

1 and 3 use the past tense, 4 uses the perfect tense. The difference between 1 and 4 is the usual difference between past and perfect tense. Other questions deal with that. The "on" is optional, and is best omitted.

2 is not acceptable as it is using a passive form. The expression "catch fire" is idiomatic and "fire" is not acting like a regular object of the verb to catch. It is better to think of the expression "catch fire" as being an intransitive verbal expression. As it is intransitive you cannot use it in the passive voice. [Example: "Jack died" is correct, "Jack was died" is not correct]. It would also be unreasonable to say "Fire was caught by the building".

The expression "The building was on fire" is correct. An incorrect merging of that expression with your number 3 could form number 2. Note as the comment below mentions, the structure "X was caught on Y" is grammatically well formed.

  • 2
    "The building was caught on fire" to me means that somebody or something caught the building while it was on fire. Switching nouns, you could get the sentence, "The robbery was caught on video," which is grammatically correct, but does not mean that the robbery caught anything. This is kind of an apples and oranges deal, since we have different meanings with the word "caught," but it was something I observed. Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 0:47
  • Yes that's right. "The building was caught on fire" is grammatically well formed, but it is not an 'acceptable' sentence, it that it doesn't express the intention. It would be formed in error from the merging of "It caught fire" and "It was on fire", a point which I'll add to my answer.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 5:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .