Chapter 6: Syntax

6.11 Changing argument structure: Causatives and passives

So far we’ve only looked at thematic roles that verb roots come specified with. But all languages have ways to adjust the thematic roles expressed in a clause, either syntactically or morphologically.

Adding arguments: Causatives

For example, many languages have a causative construction. Causatives add an extra causer or agent (which becomes a new subject):

(1) a. They read a book. (transitive: Agent-Theme)
b. I made them read a book. (causative: Adds a second Causer/Agent)

English has a syntactic causative construction. Other languages have morphological causatives, that don’t involve a causative verb like make, but instead have verbal morphology that does the same work of adding an additional causer argument. Japanese is a language with a morphological causative, illustrated in (2).

(2) a. Neko-wa tabe-ta
cat-TOPIC eat-PAST
“The cat ate.” (intransitive: Agent)
b. Watasi-wa neko-ni tabe-sase-ta
“I made the cat eat.” (causative: adds a second Causer/Agent)

Other argument adding constructions include applicatives (adding a participant that the event is done for, usually as an indirect object. For example: I baked a cake. -> I baked my friend a cake.).

Removing arguments: Passives

Conversely, there are constructions that remove an argument from the ones the verb usually projects. Perhaps the most famous of these is the passive.

English, like many of the world’s languages, has a passive construction, which removes the original subject of a verb, resulting in the original object becoming the passive subject. A non-passive sentence is known as an active sentence. For example:

(3) a. They wrote a book. (original sentence: active)
b. A book was written (by them). (passive)

A grammatical passive can be identified by the following three properties:

  1. Original subject of the basic (active) transitive verb is demoted: it ceases to be the subject, and is optionally expressed in a propositional phrase (in English = by phrase) or with oblique case.
  2. Theme object of the basic (active) transitive verb becomes the subject of the passive clause.
  3. Characteristic morphology or syntax (in English = be + Past Participle -en/-ed)

All three of these properties are needed for a clause to be a true grammatical passive. In traditional grammar, active and passive are identified as “voices” of a verb; in some languages there are other grammatical voices, for example “middle voice”.

The first property of passives relates them to corresponding active sentences. This is a key property of passives: for any passive clause, there is always an active counterpart. (This is similar to questions, which we described in terms of their grammatical relationship to statements.)

Consider the following active sentence:

(4) The pirates sank the ship.

This is transitive, so it has a passive counterpart:

(5) The ship was sunk (by the pirates).

The sentence in (5) has all three defining properties of passives:

  1. The verb is replaced by be + past participle sunk
  2. The original subject is demoted and appears in an optional
  3. The subject is [the ship], which was the theme object of the
    active verb.

Compare this with the theme-intransitive we saw earlier

(6) The ship sank (*by the pirates).

In contrast to (5), (6) does not have all three defining properties of a grammatical passive:

  1. The subject is [the ship], which was the theme object of the active verb, but
  2. The original subject cannot be expressed in a by-phrase
  3. There is no auxiliary be, and no past participle.

While the subject in both these cases is [the ship], the theme intransitive doesn’t have the other properties of a passive clause.

Passives in Popular Discourse

In prescriptive grammar and in popular discussions, the passive is often disparaged: advice (or “rules”) for writing often says that you should avoid the passive voice. Sometimes this is justified by saying that thepassive “hides” the agent of an event.

In fact, though, the passive allows you to express the agent in a by-phrase in a way that other intransitives do not

(7) a. The ship was sunk by the pirates. (Passive, but expresses the agent)
b. The ship sank. (Active! But no way to express who did the sinking)
c. The bomb exploded. (Active! But doesn’t say who set the bomb)

So the reason given for avoiding the passive doesn’t hold up.

In both writing advice and in online discussions, you often see news headlines criticized for using “passive voice” for using verbs like “dies”/“died” or “something went wrong”, without identifying the cause of death or who did something wrong. If you search “passive voice” on a platform like Twitter, you will often find posts that make this kind of claim.

These tweets are typically pointing out a problem with the content of various types of public language (headlines, public statements by politicians), but they frame the criticism in terms of grammatical structure. And the sources these tweets complain about are rarely passive in the linguistic sense discussed in earlier in this section, but usually active. In most cases, using a passive would actually make it more possible to express an agent; for example, instead of only saying that an individual died, a passive could say that they were killed by police.

This is an example of how language ideologies—our attitudes and beliefs about language—can be expressed in popular discourse. Here people express a legitimate criticism of public writing—not clearly expressing the agent or person responsible for an action—but do so using grammatical terminology (in a way that doesn’t match the original grammatical meaning of the term “passive”). The intended criticism is about what information gets expressed in news headlines, but it is presented as though it is a grammatical issue.

We could say that this is just a change in the popular meaning of “passive”—but since “avoid the passive” is also given as stylistic advice more generally (independently of criticisms of headlines that elide responsibility), it’s useful to try to reserve the term “passive” for the actual grammatical structure.



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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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