Notes of Passivization

One construction students of the English language inevitably encounter in their course of study is the conversion of an active sentence into a passive one (passivization), e.g.:

John bought a car. (active) –>  A car was bought by John. (passive)

Passivization is basically the shift in focus from the agent (the performer or doer) and his actions to the patient (the receiver or doee) and the actions done onto her. In this post, I briefly explore passivation in Cantonese, English, Japanese, Standard Chinese (Mandarin) and Thai.

Passivation in English

Assuming that English takes the basic word order of subject-verb-object [SVO], we might analyze passive structures as the promotion of the patient from the [O]-slot to the [S]-slot along with the optional deletion of the agent:

[ S ] [ V ] [ O ]
[ Mary ] [ lectures ] [ her students ] becomes…
[ Her students ] [ are lectured ] or…
[ Her students ] [ are lectured ] [ by Mary ].

Some observations:

  • agent + verbi + patient –>  patient + form of be + past participle verbi (+ agent)
  • mentioning the agent is optional
  • the verb in the active sentence changes from transitive to intransitive in the passive


Active Passive
She robbed the bank. The bank was robbed (by her).
He breaks windows. The windows are broken (by him).
Sally is going to be drinking wine. The wine is going to be drunk by Sally.
The dog has been chewing our piano legs. Our piano legs have been being chewed on (by the dog [and continues to be chewed on]).
I will have been studying Swahili for three years by the end of the semester. Swahili will have been being studied for three years by the end of the semester (by me).

The last two examples do sound at least slightly awkward to native English speakers, but they are grammatical, albeit marginal.  These rarer examples have been explored by others: here and here.

Some general limitations to English passivization:

  • active sentences with an intransitive verb cannot be passivized:
    She jumps rope –> ?
  • active sentences with a stative verb cannot be passivized:
    I own a cat. –>  A cat was owned by me. (compare meanings!)
    However, Everybody had a good time. –>  A good time was had by all. is acceptable and also exceptional, since A good time was had by all is idiomatic (Meyer, 2005), so…
  • idioms in active construction cannot be passivized, and similarly, idioms in passive construction cannot be activized:
    Bruno jumped the gun. (active) –> The gun was jumped by Bruno. (passive)
    We were had by our rivals. (passive) –> ?Our rivals had us. (active)

Passivization in Japanese

Unlike English, Japanese doesn’t require the explicit mention of the agent or even the patient in a passive sentence.  If either or both are mentioned, as in English, the patient is promoted to the [S]-slot. e.g.:

友達ケーキ食べ –> 僕ケーキ友達食べられた
me-topic friend-nom cake-acc eat-past –>  me-topic cake-nom friend-agent eat-pass-past
My friend ate my cake. –> My cake was eaten by my friend.

Differences between English and Japanese passivization:

  • In both active and passive counterparts, the agent and patient are optional since using the correct form a verb is the only requirement for a well-formed Japanese sentence (both agent and patient can be understood through context):

    At the cinema, (I/he/she/they) laughed.
    At the cinema, (I/he/she/they) was (were) laughed at (by me/him/her/them).
  • Passives can be used to make sentences sound more polite:
    先輩はまだ行った –> 先輩はまだ行かれた “Our superiors have already gone.”
    部長は来る?–> 部長は来られますか? “Is the head of department coming?”
  • Intransitive verbs can be passivized:
    氷雨に降られた “(I/He/She/They) was (were) hailed on.”
  • Japanese linguists are divided as whether or not there is a difference between direct and indirect passives. Direct passives correspond to the English passive:

    窓が閉められた           “A window was opened.”
    Direct passive, nominative case is marked (が), object was affected

    窓を閉められた           “A window was closed
    on me.”
    Indirect passive, accusative case is marked (を), patient was affected

Passivization in Standard Chinese and Cantonese

Similar to English, Standard Chinese and Cantonese require mention of the patient and verb in passive constructions:

Standard Chinese:     我的車被(人)撞了     “My car was hit by somebody”
Cantonese:                  我架車俾人撞咗        “My car was hit by somebody”

However, unlike Standard Chinese, Cantonese requires a dummy agent if the agent is unknown, namely 人 for “somebody” and 嘢 for “something”:

Cantonese:                  呢隻貓嘢咬親     “This cat was bitten by something”
Cantonese:                  *呢隻貓咬親        (ungrammatical)
Standard Chinese:      這隻貓咬            “This cat was bitten by something”

Actually, these example only represents one kind of passive construction, namely formal passives, in which patients are marked with 被, 俾, 讓, 叫, 教, 給 or 為 (classical).  The choice of marker to use depends on the desired formality and dialect.  For example, Cantonese uses被 in formal contexts such as news reporting, academic or literary work, while 俾is used in other contexts.  When using a formal marker, the sentence usually describes an adverse situation but there is data of well-formed non-adversative use.  Searching for terms 被/俾 + 人愛/贊/惜/鐘意 “be loved/praised/adored/liked,” yielded millions of hits on Google.

Three other forms of passives include topicalization, 是…的 construction (Ross & Ma, 2006) and lexical passivization (adapted from Yip & Rimmington, 2004):

Standard Chinese:     已熄滅了      “As for the lights, they’ve already been switched off”
Cantonese:                  已經熄咗

是…的 Construction
Standard Chinese:     這件文章我朋友寫       “This essay was written by my friend”
Cantonese:                  呢件文章我朋友寫

Lexical Passivization (patient + V + 到 + agent + disyllabic nominalized verb)
Standard Chinese:   他收到老師嚴厲的批評      “She was severely criticized by the teacher”

Passivization in Thai

Passive constructions in Thai share at least two common features with Chinese, namely:

รองเท้าของฉันหายไป      “My shoes have disappeared”
ปากกาด้ามนี้ขโมยมา       “This pen was stolen”

Passive markers ถูก and โดน similar to Chinese 被
เค้าโดนพ่อดา                  “He was scolded by (his) father”
ลูกบอลถูกเตะโดยเด็ก      “The ball was kicked by the children”

In addition to these two passivization strategies, Thai also uses โดย to indicate an agent (usually glossed as ‘by’):

บทความฉบับนี้เขียนโดยศาสตราจารย์        “This article was written by the professor.”

Unlike English, the clause before the one mentioning the agent is not an independent clause:

*บทความฉบับนี้เขียน                  (ungrammatical)
This article was written.          (grammatical)

ได้รับ + V can also be used to indicate a passive:

ผู้โดยสารได้รับบาดเจ็บจากกรณีเครื่องบิน   “Passengers were injured in the airplane incident.”

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One Response to Notes of Passivization

  1. Fred Harvey says:

    Very scholarly treatment of the subject matter.

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