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PASSIVISATION

Traditionally, the passive was analysed as a form of movement in which the


subject and the object are exchanged:
The policemen chased the bank robbers.
The bank robbers were chased by the policemen.

becomes:

by exchanging the policemen and the bank robbers and by adding were and by.
The passive voice is a complex linguistic phenomenon which manifests itself
at morphological, syntactic and semantic level.
At the morphological level, the specialized Passive Voice markers are attached
to the verb: the auxiliaries be or get and the affix -en for the main verb.
At the syntactic level, the active Subject and Object NPs change their position
and status. The active Object is moved to sentence initial position, while the active
Subject NP is converted into a prepositional by-Object which is placed in post-verbal
position and under certain circumstances may become deletable.
At the semantic level, there is a change in the relation between the two
thematic roles. The Agent ceases to be the central hero allowing the Patient to
become the protagonist of the passive sentence.
CLASSES OF VERBS THAT ALLOW PASSIVISATION
The classes of verbs - mostly transitive and a few intransitive - that allow a passive
counterpart of their active sentences are:
a. Passivizable transitive verbs are simple or complex:
They have decorated [the house] recently
S
V
DO
[The house] has been decorated recently.

(simple transitive verb)

Simple transitive verbs allow the active Direct Object to be promoted to


passive Subject position.
Complex transitive verbs that can be passivised may be further grouped into
those that allow one passive counterpart and those which permit two passive
constructions:
Complex transitives with one passive are of three types:
prepositional transitives:
They accused [him] of cheating.
S
V
DO
PO
[He] was accused of cheating.
transitives with adverbials:

They threw [the papers] into the basket.


S
V
DO
Adv.Mod. of Place
[The papers]were thrown into the basket.

transitives with predicative adjuncts: They shot


[John] dead.
S
V
DO
Predicative
[John] was shot dead.

Complex transitives with two passives are, typically, ditransitive verbs which
may appear in two alternative constructions, either with the IO placed
immediately after the verb or after the DO:
a.

John gave Mary a book. (double object construction)


IO DO
b.
John gave a book to Mary. (oblique object construction)
DO IO
When passivised these constructions yield the following versions:
a. Mary was given a book by John.
*A book was given Mary by John.
b. A book was given to Mary.
*Mary was given a book to by John.
It can be noticed that the double object construction allows a passive
configuration with the former IO Mary functioning as a passive Subject, while
the oblique object construction yields a passive sentence with the former DO a
book functioning as a Subject. What these two objects have in common is that
they are adjacent to the ditransitive verb in the active voice. To put it shortly,
only objects which are adjacent to the verb can become Subjects in the passive
voice.
The same principle explains the behaviour of another class of ditransitive
verbs, those with obligatory to-NP in IO position (explain, describe, prescribe)
which have only one passive counterpart:
The teacher explained the lesson to the students.(oblique object constr.)
*The teacher explained the students the lesson. (double object constr.)
The lesson was explained to the students by the teacher.
*The students were explained the lesson to by the teacher.
Additionally, there are some idiomatic phrases which allow two passive
counterparts. These idiomatic phrases have the following structure:
V
+
[+abstract] NP
+
to-NP
to take strong exception to sth., to make an example of sb., to foist all ones
problems on sth., to pin ones faith on sth., to make too much of sth., to keep
tabs on sth., to take advantage of sth., etc.
I have taken careful notice of your remarks.
Careful notice has been taken of your remarks.
Your remarks have been taken careful notice of.
We notice that either the active DO careful notice or the active Object of the
Preposition your remarks can appear as a Subject in the passive sentence. In
the second passive sentence, only the Object of the Preposition moves to front
position, while its preposition of remains in situ (i.e. where it was).
2

b. Passivizable intransitive verbs are prepositional verbs, i.e. they take an


obligatory preposition. Such verbs allow the active Object of the preposition to
become an passive Subject. The preposition remains after the verb, in its initial
position, i.e. in situ:
-

prepositional verbs: The Chairman ran [through the main points] briefly.
S
V
PO
The main points were run through (by the Chairman).

- verbs with particle and preposition (i.e. prepositional phrasal verbs):


They put up with these interruptions cheerfully.
S
V
PO
These interruptions were put up with cheerfully.
-

verbs with twoPPs:


They never spoke about her former friend in her presence.
Her former friend was never spoken about in her presence.

CLASSES OF VERBS THAT RESIST PASSIVISATION


Most transitive verbs qualify for a passive construction, however there are a few
transitive verbs that resist passivisation. These verbs have different semanticosyntactic properties:
1. The transitive verbs resemble, marry, divorce, etc. express a reciprocal relation
between the Subject and the Object of the sentence. They form symmetric
predicates that is they allow the Subject and the Object to change positions:
Jane resembles his wife.
Su
DO
His wife resembles Jane.
Su
DO
* His wife is resembled by Jane.
Since the main function of passivisation is that of fronting the DO, reciprocal
configurations do not need to resort to passivisation. They can easily front the DO
by reversing their terms. (In other words, reciprocal verbs cannot be passivized,
but in the active voice they allow the subject and the direct object to swap
positions).
2. The transitive verbs have(got), possess (own) indicate a relation of possession
between the subject and the object. They also resist passivisation, probably on
account of their semantico-syntactic unidirectionality. The BENEFICIARY
role is always assigned to the argument in Subject position, while the thing
possessed functions as DO:
She
has (got)/ owns/ possesses
BENEFICIARY

a car.
THEME

3. Stative verbs, among which verbs denoting a mental process (know, believe,
consider, think) and verbs of perception (see, hear, perceive, etc.) may
undergo passivisation when the DO is a clause, as in (b):
a. She knew the poem Kubla Khan.
*The poem Kubla Kahn is known to her.
b. Everyone knew [that Bill was tall].
That Bill was tall was known by everybody.
The Agentive By-Phrase
Passive sentences differ by the presence or absence of the agentive by-phrase.
Passive sentences with a deleted Agent are called agentless passives. Language users
resort to agentless passive sentences in the following circumstances:
The Agentless passive
a. when the identity of the Agent is unknown to the speaker:
John was killed in the war. (by the enemy, a shell splinter, poison gas)
b. when the Agent is indefinite:
Pets are rarely ill-treated. (by people who keep them)
c. when the Agent is not relevant for the topic:
Has the doctor been sent for?
d. when the speaker feels no need to name the Agent, because it is well known:
Eventually the thieves were caught and severely punished.
e. when the speaker does not wish to name the Agent, the identity of the Agent is
considered to be a secret:
A confidential plan has been recently entrusted to me.
The agentless passive is frequently used in scientific texts and in fictional ones for
rhetorical and stylistic purposes. One effect commonly obtained is that of an
objective, detached point of view.