Am I Being Watched? The Continuous Passive Form


In his popular 1980s song, American singer Rockwell sang the words, "I always feel like somebody's watching me."

He doesn't know who is watching him. And, I suppose that makes it even more frightening.

In English, when we don't know who is performing the action of the verb, or when the subject of a sentence is not very important, we often use the passive voice. In that case, Rockwell could have sung:

I always feel like I'm being watched by somebody.

But...I suspect it wouldn't have sounded as good.

Still, the structure works great in movie dialogue. In fact, spy movies and crime films often make reference to "being watched" and "being followed." Both are examples of the passive voice.

And, when we make passive sentences with a continuous verb tense, we call it the "continuous passive." In an earlier program we told you about the passive voice. You may remember that, in active sentences, the subject performs the action of the verb. In passive sentences, the subject receives the action of the verb.

Today, we'll discuss the continuous passive form.

The most commonly used verb tenses for this form are present continuous and past continuous. For now, let's keep going with the present continuous.

Present Continuous Passive

We don't need a theatrical example. There are plenty of real life situations where we use present continuous passive. Here are just a few:

Let's say you're in a busy electronics store. Several people are looking at products. And, workers are walking around helping them. One comes to you and says:

Good afternoon, are you being helped?

You answer:

No, not yet. Thanks. Can you show me your three most popular sound systems?

In the United States, you will hear the question "Are you being helped?" at busy stores, markets and restaurants.

Another situation where this form is useful is when something has been sent for repair. Suppose your car breaks down on your way to work. You take it to an auto shop. Then, you call your boss and say:

My car is being fixed. I'll order a taxi to get to work.

The structure for the present continuous passive is: subject + is/are + BEING + the past participle.

Note that the person who is fixing the car is not mentioned in the sentence "My car is being fixed." Leaving out the person or thing doing the action is common in passive statements.

Past Continuous Passive

OK, now imagine that your car has been fixed. How can you say it with the past continuous passive form? Let's listen:

My car was being fixed. But I have it back now.

The only word we changed in the sentence about the car was "is." We changed it to the past tense "was." Nothing else changes.

So, the structure for past continuous passive is: subject + was or were + BEING + past participle.

Notice that, in the continuous passive, the word "being" is always present – no matter what the verb tense is.

Another place we often see the continuous passive is in news reporting. Here's an example:

Hundreds of children are being held at detention centers.

Yet, suppose the children were reunited with their families. How might we change the example to past continuous passive? Let's listen:

Hundreds of children were being held at detention centers.

We simply changed the word "are" to "were." Nothing else changed. Easy, so far? Good!

How to Make Continuous Passive

To make it even simpler, let's look at it in steps. We'll start with an active sentence with a present continuous verb and change it to passive voice.

1. The first step is to locate the subject, verb and object. Take a listen and give it a try:

The men are cleaning the boats.

Did you find the subject, verb and object? "The men" is the subject. "Are cleaning" is the verb. And "the boats" is the object.

2. Once we've identified the object, we can make our passive sentence. To do this, the object becomes the subject, so we put it first. The verb is next and the new object (the men) is last. Here's how it sounds:

The boats are being cleaned by the men.

Pay close attention to how the verb changed. It went from the active "are cleaning" to the passive "are being cleaned." Notice that the word "cleaning" changes to the past participle: "cleaned."

3. Remove the person or thing doing the action.

Earlier in the program, we told you that, in a passive sentence, the person or thing doing the action is often not important so, in this example, we'll remove it. Let's listen:

The boats are being cleaned.

Now, we'll change it to the past continuous passive. Listen:

The boats were being cleaned.

The "are" changes to "were." There are no other changes.

Being vs. Getting

In casual American English, we sometimes replace the word "being" with "getting" for the continuous passive form. Here's how one of our earlier examples sounds with "getting:"

My car is getting fixed.
My car was getting fixed.

But this form is not acceptable for formal, written English. So, we won't use it in our practice today.

Now, you try it!

OK, now it's your turn. Make the following active sentences into passive ones. For this exercise, be sure to remove the person or thing doing the action. For example, the active sentence "The restaurant is serving dinner on the patio" would be "Dinner is being served on the patio" in the passive form. The words "the restaurant" have been removed.

Here are your sentences:

She was painting the living room red.
They are driving the girls to the soccer match.
They were negotiating for more territory.
Were you recording me without permission?

Write your answers in the Comments section.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Present Continuous


Present Continuous


Past Continuous


I always feel like somebody's watching me.

I always feel like I'm being watched (by somebody).

I always felt like I was being watched (by somebody).

Is someone helping you?

Are you being helped (by someone)?

Were you being helped (by someone)?

The mechanic is fixing my car.

My car is being fixed (by the mechanic).

My car was being fixed (by the mechanic).

The agency is holding hundreds of children at detention centers.

Hundreds of children are being held at detention centers (by the agency).

Hundreds of children were being held at detention centers (by the agency).

The restaurant is serving dinner on the patio.

Dinner is being served on the patio (by the restaurant).

Dinner was being served on the patio (by the restaurant).

The men are cleaning the boats.

The boats are being cleaned (by the men).

The boats were being cleaned (by the men).

Words in This Story

passive – adj. showing that the subject of a sentence is acted on or affected by the verb

dialogue – n. the things that are said by the characters in a story, movie, play, etc.

mention – v. to talk about, write about or refer to something or someone, especially in a brief way

casual – adj. not formal or official

practice – n. the activity of doing something again and again in order to become better at it

patio – n. a flat area of ground, usually behind a house or restaurant, that is used for sitting and relaxing

[ Web editor:Robin Wang, Wu Jianhan ]