Was born and was killed

Does the verb be have the same function in the two phrases was born and was killed? I don’t thing so. I just tried writing the following sentence: He was born in 1898 and killed in action in 1918.

To my ear, that sounds very odd. I think it needs to be He was born in 1898 and was killed in action in 1918. Why is that? I will investigate that by looking at the mission of repeated words (ellipsis).


English and other languages often permit words to be omitted (or deleted) omitted under various conditions, including when the same words appear in two phrases conjoined by a conjunction (such as and). Omission of this kind is called ellipsis.

There has been a lot of research on the conditions that permit ellipsis. Some of that research focusses on what it means for the omitted word (or phrase) to be the same as another word or phrase.

Another look at my example

Let’s take another look at my example. Consider the sentence He was born in 1898 and he was killed in action in 1918.

  • The second instance of he can be omitted. This suggests that the two instances of he are the same and play the same role.
    He was born in 1898 and <he> was killed in action in 1918.
  • But it doesn’t seem possible to delete the 2nd instance of was. This seems to be evidence that was plays two different roles in was born and was killed.

Two roles for was

In the phrase was killed, was is clearly the auxiliary verb used in creating the passive voice. For more on the passive, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/03/what-is-the-passive

Was born as passive?

Etymologically, born is the past participle of the verb bear, meaning to give birth to. So, the phrase was born was, presumably, a passive formed from the verb bear. But in modern English, the phrase was born no longer seems to be a passive, and the above evidence seems to confirm that fact.

Born as adjective?

Another possibility is that born in was born functions as an adjective, and that was functions as a copula, linked the adjective to the subject. That analysis would be tempting—except that I can’t construct a plausible meaning for born as an adjective in this construction. It would have to mean something like ‘being in a state of having been born. That would just a work for someone still alive, but seems implausible for a person who is dead.

Without having investigated this in detail, I suspect the most fruitful analysis is that was born is simply a fixed idiom, in which the component parts no longer carry the same meanings as originally.

Help from German?

German has 2 ways of saying ‘he was born’.

  • er wurde geboren. This normal passive is formed using the auxiliary wurde (‘became’) and the past participle of the verb gebären (‘give birth to’). This form of passive is sometimes called the Vorgangspassiv (‘passive of process’)
  • er war geboren. The past participle is being used as an adjective and war is being used just as a copula. This form of passive is sometimes called the Zustandspassiv (‘passive of state’).

At school, I learned that:

  • er ist geboren (literally he is born), with the present tense of sein (‘be’) is used for people who are still alive
  • er wurde geboren, the past tense of werden (‘become’) is used for people who are dead.

From some quick digging I haven’t been able to confirm that explanation from my schooldays, so I will have to keep looking.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *