Passive form - を or は / が

With using passive form, e.g. 食べられる, when do you mark the subject with を or は (or が)? For example, what is the difference between these sentences, and which is correct:
I have read a few posts from various sources but I’m still confused on when to use what (;‘∀’)


Maybe this will help: grammar - Passive form - The exact difference between を and が - Japanese Language Stack Exchange

In this case I believe that を would be the right choice.


So を is used to indicate a negative effect on the subject (not the doer of the action, but the ‘affected’ subject)?

That’s how I understand it. Cure Dolly covers this here if you don’t mind her style:


Pragmatically that’s how it’s typically used! It doesn’t have to be a negative effect though, it could also be a positive one. The emphasis is on the effect on the topic (usually the speaker).

I’d also add that this isn’t a hard-fast rule, and that there will be exceptions occasionally (I know I read one the other day, but I can’t remember the sentence offhand :frowning: )

Here, unfortunately, you also have to deal with the fact that 食べられた has multiple possible interpretations: potential, ‘passive’, and/or polite. But, let’s put that aside and assume from context that it is clear that it is meant as ‘passive’.

If you go by the Cure Dolly explanation posted by @simias , then this so-called ‘passive’ is actually more accurately named ‘receptive’. In Japanese grammar it is called the 受身 (うけみ), and 受 means [receive, accept, get, take, catch, undergo, answer]. Then it becomes pretty straightforward:


リンゴ is the true grammatical subject of the sentence, since it is marked by が. Therefore, it is the thing doing the ‘receiving’ (られた). What is it receiving? The action of ‘eat’ (食べ). Eaten by whom/what? By ‘someone’ (誰か). So, using ‘got’ instead of ‘received’:

(The) apple got eaten by someone.



Here the が particle is omitted, so – simply as a mental aid for figuring out the meaning/semantics of the sentence – we introduce a ∅ pronoun (aka ‘zero’ pronoun), and mentally re-write it as:


By context, we can infer what the ∅ pronoun refers to (much as we do when we encounter the word ‘it’ in English). And so, for the sake of argument let’s assume that ∅ refers to the speaker of the sentence (in other words, 私). So, the full context of the sentence, spelled out explicitly is:


Now, we can easily parse the sentence. The true grammatical subject of the sentence is 私, marked by が. What is 私 ‘doing’? Again, ‘receiving’ (られた) an action (receptive form). What action? ‘Eat’ (食べ). [What?! The speaker (私) is being eaten?!? … No, we need to look at the rest of the sentence for full context.] What is being eaten? What is the direct object of the verb? Ah! That is always marked by を, so then it must be the apple (リンゴ). Eaten by what/whom? By someone (誰か). So, the full sentence means, again replacing ‘received’ by ‘got’:

I got (my) apple eaten by someone.

This is the true meaning of the sentence, and it’s not passive; it’s receptive. In this case, it’s called the ‘suffering passive’, or more accurately, the ‘suffering receptive’, or even more accurately, the ‘nuisance receptive’. In Japanese it’s 迷惑の受身. 迷惑 (めいわく) = nuisance, 受身 (うけみ)= receptive.

Compare with what it would actually be in English if it were indeed passive:

(My) apple was eaten by someone.

But if that were the case, then the true grammatical subject of the sentence would be either the ‘apple’, or the ‘someone’ (I’m not sure which, TBH), rather than the speaker 私. And that would imply that in Japanese that either を or に can mark the grammatical subject, which is not the case. Only が marks the grammatical subject.

Also,we would lose the sense of the speaker having been made to ‘suffer’ or be ‘nuisanced’ in some way. So, it would not function so readily as a ‘nuisance receptive’ (aka ‘suffering passive’), 迷惑の受身.


= (The) apple got eaten by someone. [受身]
= I got (my) apple eaten by someone. [迷惑の受身]

The key to figuring it out is to first identify the actual grammatical subject of the sentence, always marked by が (even when you can’t directly see it, i.e. when it’s a ∅が). Everything else unfolds from there.


Thankyou so much it actually makes sense now!! ありがとう!(^^)!

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This is a superb explanation! The 私が is truly a secret sauce.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that in many other European languages there exists a structure with a similar meaning to the suffering passive / the nuisance receptive. It’s not passive, but it usually literally translates as “Someone ate [to] me the apple”. In all these languages “someone broke my heart” is literally “someone broke [to] me the heart”:

  • French: On m’ a brisé le coeur
  • Spanish: Me rompieron el corazón
  • Russian: Мне разбили сердце
  • Hebrew: שברו לי את הלב
  • German: Man hat mir das Herz gebrochen

Interestingly, it looks like English is the only language I’ve studied where you can’t say natively that you’ve suffered because somebody did something to your body part or to a possession of yours without using the possessive “my”. :upside_down_face: