Again, some words about the use of “ag” with the autonomous verb

In English, the preposition by is used for announcing the agent of an action in passive constructions: it was done by him (passive) corresponds to he did it (active). In Irish, the story is more complicated.

The author of a book or an article: “A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens”: Use le, if there is no verbal construction involved: Scéal fá Dhá Chathair le Charles Dickens. (Of course, it should be Scéal faoi Dhá Chathair in standard Irish, but the existing translation comes from the pre-Caighdeán era, and the translator was an Ulster dialect speaker.)

When the action is (or was, or will be) ongoing and not completed, we use the construction with do + possessive + verbal noun. This passive construction takes the ag agent.

Tá muid dár n-ionsaí ag trúpaí naimhdeacha “We are being attacked by enemy troops”

Bhí sibh do bhur mealladh ag an gcailín leathnocht, agus níor thug sibh faoi deara go raibh bhur bpócaí á bhfolmhú ag a páirtí “You guys were being charmed by the half-naked girl, and you didn’t notice that your pockets were being emptied by his partner”

Bhí “Scéal fá Dhá Chathair” á chumadh ag Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities was being written by Charles Dickens” (or rather “authored, composed” – I used the verb cum!/cumadh)

When the action is definitely completed, we use the participle (the -the/-te/-tha/ta form).

Tá an cath briste orainn ag na trúpaí naimhdeacha “We have been defeated by the enemy troops” (in Irish we say, “the battle has been broken on us by the enemy troops”)

Bhí sibh meallta ag an gcailín leathnocht “You guys had been charmed by the half-naked girl”

Bhí “Scéal fá Dhá Chathair” cumtha ag Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities had been written by Charles Dickens”

There is a definite difference between the Irish construction Bhí sé déanta aige and the English construction It was done by himThey do not mean the same. The Irish construction is basically the exact equivalent of the German “situational passive” or Zustandspassiv – es war von ihm gemacht/getan. It means that it had been done previously, but the prevailing situation is that it was not being done anymore, and only the results existed at the time referred to. Thus, tá an cath briste orainn is best translated with the English perfect: we have been defeated; and bhí an scéal cumtha is a pluperfect: the story had been composed.

Now, of course, you want to ask, how you exactly translate into Irish such a construction as A Tale of Two Cities was written by Charles Dickens. This English construction does signal that the act of writing has been completed, but it also stresses the act, not just the result (the Irish situational passive only stresses the result). My short answer is: you don’t. You say instead Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, or ’twas Charles Dickens who wrote A Tale of Two Cities. Thus:

Chum Charles Dickens “Scéal fá Dhá Chathair”.

Ba é Charles Dickens a chum “Scéal fá Dhá Chathair”.

Those who learnt their Irish mainly from contemporary non-native sources will ask me, what about *Cumadh “Scéal fá Dhá Chathair” ag Charles Dickens then? I have always recommended against using ag agents with the autonomous verb. Here is why.

It is to be admitted that during different periods, there have been attempts to use an agent with the autonomous verb. My illustrious fellow countryman Anders Ahlqvist once pointed out to me that Old Irish used the preposition that was the cognate of as (‘out of’). Diarmuid Ó Sé has in his article in Ériu in 2006,  Agent Phrases with the Autonomous Verb in Modern Irish, surveyed this kind of constructions. It is suggested by Niall Ó Dónaill in his indispensable dictionary that le was used in older literary Irish – basically, in Early Modern Irish and later attempts to approximate classical style – for this purpose.

However, Ó Sé is of the opinion that such constructions as cailleadh X le Y “X was lost (killed) by Y” do not suggest that Y killed X, but rather, that Y was the reason of X being lost or killed – i.e., Y didn’t wield the weapon that killed X. A typical construction is cailleadh an laoch le bean álainn – i.e. a beautiful woman was the reason why the hero was killed (in the classical or postclassical examples used by Ó Sé, bean still had the dative form, so cailleadh an laoch le mnaoi álainn would be closer to the actual style, but you get the picture). The idea here is more like “he was lost/killed through a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman was his undoing”.

In fact, this usage of le is still common in such constructions as cailleadh le hocras é “he starved to death” (“he was lost through hunger”) and even the active construction fuair sé bás le hocras (“he got death through hunger”). I would also suggest that le is possible as a kind of agent preposition when the agent is not personal, but, for instance, a force of nature, so that it is difficult to say whether it is an agent or a reason: scoilteadh an spéir le tintreach (“the sky was split by/with a lightning”).

Sometimes, very rarely, you see le in contemporary literature used as agent. I have seen it once or twice in all the Ulster folklore collections I have perused for the last twenty years. I remember there is one very thin volume from Ulster – I can’t recall the title, and it seems the book is not included in my old bibliography – which includes one instance of le obviously used as a personal agent. (And of course, in An Chéad Mhám by Seán Bán Mac Meanman, there were examples of this le usage as an attempt at archaism, but that does not count.)

Another possible agent preposition is ó, which is used in Connacht Irish in such expressions as pósadh ón sagart iad “they were married by (actually from) the priest” (this example comes from Tomás de Bhaldraithe). Moreover, Ó Sé points out that Tomás de Bhaldraithe also found such gems in Connacht as this:

cén fáth nach múinfidís ó Ghaeilgeoir í? “why wouldn’t they teach her from an Irish-speaker?” (the meaning intended is “why wouldn’t they have her taught by an Irish-speaker?”)

Now, I feel very tempted to recommend these usages of ó to you, but I guess I must refrain from that. This ó usage will not be understood outside Connacht, and it is so uncommon that I have never encountered it in native literature or folklore.

Then that ag. Such constructions as goideadh an t-uisce beatha ag an druncaire “the whisky was stolen by the drunkard” are encountered in non-native literature, in bad newspaperese and in officialese, but I must say that they are really grating if you have acquired your Irish through the study of native literature and folklore. In fact, while folklore elicited from terminal speakers (i.e. speakers who aren’t regular users of the language anymore, and whose grasp of the language is loosening) does tend to exhibit unacceptable Anglicisms and solecisms, this ag usage is practically non-existent even in such material.

Diarmuid Ó Sé notes that they are sometimes found in texts written by native speakers especially of Munster background, when they try to sound refined and literary. Myself, I have found an abundance of ag agents in Dónall Mac Sithigh’s book Fan Inti, which is a Munster native speaker’s account of traditional boat-making. However, the book is in this respect very exceptional. It is my impression that these constructions are one of the most obvious differences between “good Gaeltacht Irish” (which you acquire, in Finland, by reading books written by native speakers as well as by reading folklore) and “that horrible school Irish”.

Diarmuid Ó Sé also notes that the ag is most often attached to the autonomous past tense, typically not to other tenses. He says this is a “genuine syntactic restriction” and refers to Edward Keenan’s and Matthew Dryer’s article on Passive in the world’s languages, which suggests that there is a connection between perfective verb and the need for an agent construction. Irish past tense is, according to him, basically an aorist, i.e. a verb form that refers to a completed (perfective) action. I agree on that, but I find Ó Sé’s explanation a little long-winded.

My impression is that this use of the ag agent has originated in non-native Irish and especially in direct relative clauses, which can be ambiguous: if we say an t-oifigeach a mharaigh an saighdiúir, does it mean “the officer who killed the soldier”, or “the officer whom the soldier killed”? You are tempted to use *an t-oifigeach a maraíodh ag an saighdiúir if the second interpretation is correct.

However, there is another way to avoid this ambiguity. You see the fact is that you are allowed to use indirect relative clause in such occasions. Then, write out the correct pronoun and use the indirect relative particle. Like this:

an t-oifigeach ar mharaigh sé an saighdiúir “the officer who killed the soldier”

an t-oifigeach ar mharaigh an saighdiúir é “the officer whom the soldier killed”


These usages are found in native folklore, and while they are not very common, they are found in all dialects, and sometimes even when they are not necessary. For some reasons though, they seem not to be taught at school, which may be one reason why those ag agents are so common in school Irish.


“Ag” as an agent preposition in Irish

In English, the preposition by is used as agent preposition. This means, that when you transform an active sentence, such as this –

The callous criminal murdered the poor beggar

into a passive one, the subject of the active sentence is pointed out using the preposition by:

The poor beggar was murdered by the callous criminal.

People tend to think that the Irish preposition ag always corresponds to the English preposition by in passive constructions. This is of course basically correct, but only to a certain extent. To start with, what does “passive” mean in grammar?

In an active sentence, such as “The callous criminal murdered the poor beggar”, the agent of the action (the callous criminal) is also the subject of the sentence. If we substitute “he” for “the callous criminal”, we get “He murdered the poor beggar”. “He” is the subject form of the pronoun. On the other hand, if we substitute a pronoun for “the poor beggar”, we get “The callous criminal murdered him”.  Here the form is “him”, an object form. Thus, the patient or “sufferer” of the action is in the object position and takes the object form.

In a passive sentence, the patient, though, is in the subject position, and the agent can be left completely unmentioned:

The poor beggar was murdered

or mentioned in a prepositional phrase, the preposition being by in English:

The poor beggar was murdered by the callous criminal.

I hope you have now understood the idea. By the way, the grammatical category that can be passive or active is called voice or, in a more learned way, diathesis. Back when all learned men were men and spoke Latin, the term genus verbi (the “gender” of the verb) was also used. In German, we also use Handlungsrichtung, “the direction of the action”, which makes eminent sense, but regrettably, English seems not to have an equally good term. In Irish, “voice” in this sense is faí (it’s feminine: an fhaí, genitive na faí), “active voice” being an fhaí ghníomhach, “passive voice” called an fhaí chéasta.

Now that you should know what we are talking about, let’s get on with the Irish-language part of the story.

It is basically true that in Irish, the agent of an action or a development takes the preposition ag. Thus, we have such constructions as: tá mo chroí briste agat “you have broken my heart”, or even tá a chuid gruaige liath ag an aois “his hair is grey with old age” (word for word, “grey by the age” – note that Irish uses article for generic, abstract things, while English does not). And of course, in tá sé á bhualadh ag na ruifínigh “he is being hit/beaten by the ruffians”, we have an obviously passive construction with ag marking the agent.

In Irish, there are two kinds of passive constructions: the situational passive or Zustandspassiv, as Germans say, and the progressive passive. The situational passive is created by combining a finite form of the verb tá “is” and the participle of the verb: déanta, críochnaithe, briste, scríofa, faighte, and so on. It is appropriate to use the German term Zustandspassiv for Irish, because this construction is used in a way similar to the German one: it suggests that the action is already finished, and the result has been attained:

Tá mo chroí briste agat. “You have broken my heart. My heart has been broken by you.”

Tá an tasc críochnaithe ag an oibrí. “The worker has finished the task. The task has been finished by the worker.”

Tá an t-úrscéal scríofa ag an údar. “The author has written the novel. The novel has been written by the author.”

Note that although this Irish construction looks similar to the English one – “The book is written by the author” – its meaning is quite different. The English construction suggests an ongoing process, while the Irish one suggests a finished one.

In Irish, we have another passive construction, the progressive passive, which suggests ongoing activity (“progression”). Thus:

Tá an t-úrscéal á scríobh ag an údar “The novel is being written by the author”.

Here, we have a form of the verb tá combined with á + verbal noun. It can also be written dhá or  (actually, I have no idea whatsoever which of these is the official standard, and could not care less). Anyway, this is a combination of do + possessive pronoun, in this particular instance the third person possessive pronoun “his, its”. Thus, tá an t-úrscéal á scríobh means, word for word, “the novel is to its writing”.

Note that the do can in this construction combine with other possessive pronouns, too:

tá mé do mo thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “I am being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá tú do do thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “you are being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá sé á thuirsiú ag an múinteoir “he is being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá thuirsiú or dhá thuirsiú)

tá sí á tuirsiú ag an múinteoir “she is being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá tuirsiú or dhá tuirsiú)

tá muid dár dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “we are being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dhár dtuirsiú; I recommend against using ár dtuirsiú here, because this ár can be confused with the pronoun ár “our”, which is combined with do in dár, dhár. However, don’t be confused if you do see ár in this position.)

tá sibh do bhur dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “you guys are being exhausted/bored by the teacher”

tá siad á dtuirsiú ag an múinteoir “they are being exhausted/bored by the teacher” (also dá dtuirsiú or dhá dtuirsiú)

Note that in a combination of preposition and possessive pronoun (also called possessive adjective by Irish grammarians) the possessive pronoun comes last and determines, which initial mutation the verbal noun takes. Thus: do mo, do do lenite (t > th), á lenites when it includes “his”, does not lenite (but adds h- to a vowel) when it includes “her”, and it eclipses when it includes “their”. Dár and do bhur eclipse.

So, in Irish there are two kinds of true passive constructions. However, when you hear “Irish” and “passive”, you probably think of the verb form known as saorbhriathar or the autonomous verb, which (for a regular verb) has the following forms:

present: dúntar, osclaítear

past: dúnadh, hosclaíodh

conditional mood: dhúnfaí, d’osclófaí

habitual past (imperfect past): dhúntaí, d’osclaítí

future tense: dúnfar, osclófar

There is an irritating habit among grammarians to equate this form with “passive”. This is wrong, because the formal difference between it and a real passive is obvious. In a real passive construction, the patient of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. This does not happen in the Irish autonomous form. As you should know, Irish third-person pronouns have object forms: sé, sí, siad become é, í, iad. Like this:

Bhris an buachaill an fhuinneog “The boy broke the window” – Bhris an buachaill í. “The boy broke it” (í, because fuinneog “window” is feminine).

Bhris an fear an buidéal “The man broke the bottle” – Bhris an fear é. “The man broke it.” (é, because buidéal “bottle” is masculine)

Bhris an buachaill na fuinneoga “The boy broke the windows”. – Bhris an buachaill iad “The boy broke them”.

These object forms are also used after the autonomous form. See:

Briseadh an fhuinneog – Briseadh í. “Somebody broke the window. Somebody broke it.”

Briseadh an buidéal – Briseadh é “Somebody broke the bottle. Somebody broke it.”

Briseadh na fuinneoga – Briseadh iad “Somebody broke the windows. Somebody broke them.”

So, the point of using the Irish autonomous form is not so much that of focusing on the patient rather than the agent, it is above all hiding the agent. This is why I translate briseadh na fuinneoga as “somebody broke the windows” rather than “the windows were broken”.

However, you do see the autonomous form used with an ag agent. My impression is, that it is much more common in bureaucratic and/or non-native Irish than in the works of native writers – indeed so common that it is a dead giveaway of non-native Irish. You do sometimes see it in native literature – one book that is almost to a non-native extent replete with it is Domhnall Mac Síthigh’s Fan Inti. (I am not recommending against the book, though, because it is very interesting in providing the reader with much important information about traditional boat-making – if you read it, you’ll learn all the boating terminology in Kerry Irish, which is quite a worthy undertaking for any Irish-language enthusiast). However, usually there is no ag agent added to the autonomous form – even in today’s Irish. a typical book by a native writer includes one or two instances. This suggests to me that the usage is basically Anglicist and very untypical of native Irish.

The Ó Donaill dictionary, which is not unnecessarily purist at all – in fact it includes a lot of loan words from English often attacked by purists – does not acknowledge ag as an agent preposition used with the autonomous verb, while it acknowledges other agent usages of the preposition. However, Ó Donaill notes that the preposition le can be used to refer to the agent of an autonomous verb, but only in older, pre-20th century literature (as the abbreviation Lit: suggests, in the dictionary).

Should this usage of le be revived? I am not sure. I have seen one or two instances of it used in this way in Gaeltacht literature, but it is so rare as to be almost as grating as ag, It should however be noted that it is still part of the living language in Gaelic Scotland, and the contemporary writer in whose works I have spotted it – a minor Donegal poet and seanchaí – might have learnt it over there.

There is also ó. I have been reliably informed that ó is sporadically used as agent preposition with autonomous verbs in Connacht dialects. However, this usage has, as far as I know, never entered native literature or folklore.

My opinion is, thus, that impersonal autonomous forms should never take any kind of agent constructions, and they should only be used when we don’t want, or when we don’t find it necessary, to mention the agent of the action at all.