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The Passive

Middle Sentences

Passivization is a type of NP movement triggered by (1)
the suppression of the external argument of the verb and
(2) the presence of passive morphology on the verb,
which leads to the disappearance of the accusative case
feature on the verb (passive morphology: be en).
Prediction: verbs that have an external argument will be
open to passivization, be they transitive or intransitive

The domain of passivization

Transitive verbs (including double object verbs) and
intransitive verbs with prepositional objects passivize.
a. The old lady tricked the thief.
The thief was tricked by the old lady.
b. The minister told the secret to the president.
The secret was told to the president.
Somebody slept in Napoleons bed.
Napoleons bed was slept in.

The domain of passivization

There are some restrictions on the passiviztion of
transitive verbs.
First, transitive verbs that denote states do not passivize,
i.e. have, possess, resemble, hold (in the sense of
contain). This is so because their direct object is not a
real Theme, i.e. an affected constituent.

The domain of passivization



*Seven cars were had by prime minister.

*A lot of knowledge was possessed by the
new Pope.
*John was resembled by his twin sister.
*A lof of water is held by that container.
*Confidence was lacked (by) John.

The domain of passivization

Transitive verbs that take an expletive direct object do
not passivize either.

a. John got it last time I tried to explain things to

him/*It was got (by John).
b. He blew it, Im afraid/*It was blown (by him).

This restriction falls in line with a remark that I have

previously made, namely that Theme arguments that
denote affected entities are available for passivization.

The domain of passivization

Finally, it is also important that the referent of the Agent
argument be [+ Animate] for a passive sentence to be

a. My car needs a wash.

*A wash is needed by my car.
b. The train left the station.
*The station was left by the train

The domain of passivization

There are also restrictions on the passivization of
intransitive verbs.
First, the subject in the active correspondent has to be
an Agent (cf. Grimshaw 1990).
Second, the prepositional object must denote an affected
All the examples in (6) contain affected prepositional

The domain of passivization


a. He didnt account for the loss of money.

The loss of money was not accounted for.
b. The blackmailer alluded to the crime.
The crime was alluded to.
c. They talked about the plane crash.
The plane crash was talked about.
d. He put up with their annoying interruptions.
Their annoying interruptions were put up with.

The domain of passivization

Compare the grammatical examples above with the
those in (7), whose POs denote entitites that are not
affected by the event denoted from the verb:

a. The thief was running from justice.

*Justice was run from.
b. Jim walked to the store.
*The store was walked to.

The by-phrase
The by-phrase in passives corresponds to the external
argument that has been suppressed as a result of the
presence of passive morphology.
This means that the by-phrase turns from an argument
into an optional constituent, i.e. an adjunct. One can
dispense with adjuncts.
An intruder placed the ladder here.
The ladder was placed here.

The by-phrase
Agents may be omitted because
(i) they are implicit in passive sentences
(ii) they are unknown
(iii) they are irrelevant to the piece of discourse in
which the passive sentence is integrated

The by-phrase
However, there are cases in which the omission of the
by-phrase makes a passive sentence ungrammatical, as
in (9), (a) and (b) quoted from Avram 1999.


*This house was built.

*The bridge was designed.
*The film was produced.


*The turkey was cooked.

The by-phrase
Q: What do all the passivized verbs in (9) have in
A: Semantically, they are verbs that denote creation. We
can conclude that when such verbs are passivized, the
by-phrase must be mentioned.

In addition to be-passives, English also features another
type of passive construction, the get-passive, which is
exemplified below:
10. a. John was killed in yesterdays accident.
b. John got killed in yesterdays accident.
11. a. The window was broken by my younger son.
b. I know how the window got broken.
12. a. The cat was run over by a bus.
b. The cat got run over by a bus.

There are differences bewteen the two types of passives,
which concern

the status of be versus get,

semantic interpretation and compatibility with
certain verb classes.

Be in passive sentences behaves like an auxiliary verb
(it inverts with the subject in interrogative sentences, it
is negated by not, it is used in tag questions). Get, on
the other hand, shows different behavior. Consider the
pairs of sentences below.
13. a. Was John robbed yesterday?/*Got John robbed
b. She was not paid at all/*She got not paid at all.
c. The child was kidnapped, wasnt he?/*The
child got kidnapped, gotnt he?

Get passives are interpreted as eventive whereas be
passives focus on the result of the event denoted by the
The connection between eventive interpretation and get
passives explains why this kind of passive is
ungrammatical if the verb has a stative interpretation.
This basically means that psychological verbs as well as
verbs that denote mental perception will be
ungrammatical in get passives (though not in be



a. Sue was admired/hated/feared by her brother.

b. *Sue got admired/hated/feared by her brother.


a. The dean was considered a fool.

b. *The dean got considered a fool.

Adjectival Passives
There is a set of properties that differentiate verbal
passives (which we have already discussed) and
adjectival passives (presentation and examples based on
Emonds 2005).
i)Verbal passives may denote an ongoing activity (16).
Adjectival passives refer to completed activities (17):
(16) The door is being painted.
(17) The door looked painted.

Adjectival passives
This is why the copulative verbs that are not compatible
with the completed sense cannot occur in adjectival

a. *Many polluted cities remain avoided during

the summer.
b. *New York seems left in the tourist

Adjectival passives
ii) Selection by different copulative verb classes: all
verbs that select an AP can form an adjectival
passives. Here is a short list of such verbs in English:
act, appear, be, become, look, remain,
smell, sound.
Verbal passives are grammatical with verbs such as
be and get (which may also select an AP)

Adjectival passives
iii) Degree words can modify adjectival passives, but
not verbal passives.
(19) The garden seemed too overplanted.
The region does not seem very inhabited.
How spotted with food did these clothes look?
(20) *New York is more avoided by tourists than other
*That prison is not very escaped these days.

Adjectival passives

The adjectival prefix un- modifies only adjectival


(21) The work seemed unknown/unrewarded.

These books should remain unsold/unfinished.
(22) *That work was unfollowed by others.
*These books should get unhanded to customers.

Adjectival passives
Only verbal passives have external arguments.
(23) The meeting was started on time by Susan (to
please the host).
Our workers are better paid (intentionally
by the
new boss).
(24) Most of our furniture is still unmoved (*by the
Our workers remain better paid

Consider the pairs of sentences below:
(25) a. A maid irons his shirts.
b. His shirts iron easily.
(26) a. The tax payer bribed the bureaucrats.
b. Bureaucrats bribe easily.
The examples in (25b) and (26b) are known as middle

Schoorlemmer & Ackema (2005) propose that the
following set of properties characterize middle
(i)The external argument in the non-middle counterpart
is not an argument in the middle sentence;
(ii)The subject of the middle sentences carries the
semantic role of the direct object in the non-middle
(iii) Middle sentences are generic.

The following presentation and examples, based on
Schoorlemmer & Ackema, focuses on properties of
middle sentences as well as on restrictions on middle
Middle predicates are stative.
Middle sentences rely on stative (non-eventive)
(27) Bureaucrats bribe easily.
(28) *Bureaucrats are bribing easily nowadays.

Middle sentences have a modal reading that can be
paraphrased as anyone could Verb Adverb.
(29) This book reads easily, so I can read it too.
This egg peels easily, so I can peel it too.
Middle sentences contain an adverbial modifier.
(30) These toys assemble rapidly.
*These toys assemble.

However, it is possible under certain circumstances for
middles to do without adverbial modification.
(i)when the sentence contains a modal verb
(31) This meat may cut, but you never know.
(ii)when we want to say that anyone can do the action
that the verb refers to
(32) This dress buttons.

Middle sentences are not compatible with by-phrases.
(33) Such texts do not translate easily (*by
professional translators).
(34) Such texts are usually translated by a professional

Fagan (1992) proposes that middle formation is subject
to an aspectual constraint: (transitive) activities and
accomplishment predicates represent the input to middle
(35) This pipe smokes nicely.
A Steinway piano plays easily.
Bob-Ross style pictures paint easily.
Sturdy clear plastic boxes assemble in

(36) *A red-winged blackbird recognizes easily.
*Such high summits do not reach easily.
(37) *That answer knows easily.
*Such a nice person loves only too easily.
Note, however, that Fagans constraint does not hold
across the board because achievement predicates
may also constitute input to middle formation.
(38) Glass breaks easily.
High explosives detonate easily.


It has also been proposed that the grammatical subject

in middle sentences must be also subject to the
Afectedness Constraint: the grammatical subject in a
middle sentence must be affected by the action denoted
by the middle verb.

Consider the contrast below:
(39) Defenseless countries invade easily (said by one
aggressor to another).
Defenseless cities destroy easily (said by
one bomber to another).
(40) *Simple answers know easily (said by one
student to another).
*Security stuff recognizes easily (said by
one thief to another).

Note, again, that the Afectedness Constraint may
sometimes break down.
(41) Greek translates easily.
One last constraint that applies to middle formation
concerns the subject in middle sentences, The Agentivity
Condition: the logical subject in a middle sentence must
be an Agent.

(42) Bureaucrats bribe easily.
That book reads well.
Greek does not translate easily.
(43) *The Eiffel tower sees easily.
*The answer knows easily.
*Spies dont recognize easily.

Q: How do we know that the logical subject is an
A: There are tests for agentivity.
(i)Agents are compatible with agentive adverbials such
as intentionally, on purpose;
(ii)Agents are compatible with paraphrases like what X
did to y.

(44) The mafia boss intentionally bribed the
What Mary did was read a good book.
What Harry did was translate a Greek test.
(45) #The tourist intentionally saw the Eiffel tower.
#What most students did was know the answer.
#James Bond intentionally recognized the other