Distinguishing Passive Sentences From Sentences With Subjective Complements

Superficially, active sentences with be plus subjective complement look like passives. But the verb of a passive sentence is T + be + en + MV:

Note that each of these sentences has a corresponding active:

The long walk tired Madeline out.
[subject] melted the butter.

In sentences with be plus subjective complement, by contrast, the main verb is be and there is no corresponding active sentence:

These sentences do NOT come from active sentences:

*Something tired Madeline by nine o'clock. *Something melted(?!) the lava.

An adjective acting as subjective complement can normally be qualified--at least if it's an adjective that allows a qualifier, for example:

Madeline was very tired.
Madeline was unusually tired.
Madeline was dead tired.
Madeline was not at all tired.
The presence of a qualifier is a good clue that the sentence has an adjectival subjective complement.

Note, however, that some adjectives that express absolute qualities won't accept qualifiers:

*The lava was very molten.
*The highly molten lava destroyed the city.

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Comments to: Sara Kimball
Last updated January, 2001