Linguistics 001      Homework 6      Due Mo 10/24/2005

1. Constituent structure of complex nominals

A "complex nominal" is a sequence of one or more nouns or adjectives preceding a noun, such as "olive oil", "credit card", or "ivy league school."

When a complex nominal contains more than two words, understanding its meaning usually requires figuring out how order to put the words together, in the same way that we need to figure out the structure of an arithmetic expression.

Just as ((2 + 3) * 4) means something different from (2 + (3 * 4)) -- 20 vs. 14 -- so ((light house) keeper) means something different from (light (house keeper)).

1(a) Showing constituent structure with parentheses

In the examples below, use parentheses in the same way to indicate the structure of each phrase. Use a "binary bracketing" -- that is, add parentheses in a way that always groups words or word sequences in pairs. Note that your parentheses must always balance -- every left parenthesis must always have a corresponding right parenthesis somewhere, and vice versa. Each pair of parentheses surrounds a subexpression.

Answers are given for the first four examples.

  1. Ancient Studies Center ((ancient studies) center)
  2. Biology Graduate Group (biology (graduate group))
  3. Penn Language Center (penn (language center))
  4. Annenberg Public Policy Center (annenberg ((public policy) center))
  5. Legal Services Online
  6. Wharton Automotive Club
  7. Vascular Surgery Division
  8. University Honor Council
  9. Penn Transit Services
  10. Social Science Computing
  11. Religious Studies Department
  12. Kelly Writers House
  13. Human Resources Policy Manual
  14. Biddle Law Library

1(b) Showing constituent structure with tree diagrams

For the following examples, indicate the structure by drawing "tree diagrams" instead of using parentheses.A "tree diagram" uses branching lines to symbolize the same structures that you indicated earlier with parentheses.

((A B) C)        (A (B C))

A tree diagram consists of edges (symbolized by lines on the paper) and nodes (the places where lines join). The single node at the top of the diagram is called the root of the tree. The edges leaving the root may branch at additional nodes, forming two new edges each time, or they may simply end in terminal nodes. In this exercise, the terminal nodes have labels, which are the letters A/B/C above, but will be words in the diagrams you draw. (In more general types of tree diagrams, non-terminal nodes may also have labels). The sequence of labels on the terminal nodes of a tree is called its terminal string.

Each node in such a tree diagram represents a subexpression: thus in the tree for ((A B) C), there is a node for the subexpression (A B) as well as a node -- the root node -- for the whole sequence (A B C). Here are some examples showing tree diagrams for the complex nominals shown above in parenthesis-notation:

((ancient studies) center)         (biology (graduate group))

Don't worry about the angles of the lines and so forth -- only the relationships matter. However, your diagrams will probably be easier to read if you simply write the terminal string (the phrase to be analyzed) on a line, and then draw the tree diagram on top of it, placing nodes about in the middle of their subexpressions. It will also usually be easier if you draw the lower-level relationships first, as shown here:

Draw trees for the following complex nominals:

  1. Benjamin Franklin Scholars
  2. Academic Enrichment Program
  3. Creative Writing Courses
  4. Annual Crime Report
  5. Greenfield Intercultural Center
  6. Russian special forces soldier
  7. United Nations Security Council
  8. U.S. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers
  9. Gas price fixing suit
  10. Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons

1(c) Constituent structure with conjunctions and prepositions

Now let's move a little bit towards normal English sentence structure, by adding conjunctions such as "and", "or"; prepositions such as "for", "on", "of"; and determiners like "the" and "a".

Treat the conjunctions as establishing a 3-element constituent, of the form (A and B), where the letters A and B stand for constituents of arbitrary size. Thus (Lee and Kim), ((open and shut) case), ((Penn State) and Duke).

Treat the prepositions as forming a 2-element constituent with the nominal constituent that follows them. Thus (billions (of stars)), (center (for (cancer research))).

Group the determiners with the nominals that follow them, just like the prepositions: (the (last dance)), ((the good) (the bad) and (the ugly)).

In the examples below, indicate the consituent structure using either parentheses or tree structures, as you please.

  1. Department of Cell and Developmental Biology
  2. Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research
  3. McNeil Center for Early American Studies
  4. Graduate and Professional Students Assembly
  5. Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict
  6. The state-run Anatolian news agency
  7. State and federal health officials
  8. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Office of the Budget
  9. A former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement attorney
  10. Communication and IT Minister Dayanidhi Maran

2. Passive vs. Active Voice

American students learn to "avoid the passive voice". Unfortunately, most of them don't learn what "passive voice" is. Generalizing from a few examples, and relying on the ordinary-language meaning of "passive", many people conclude that "passive voice" refers to phrases that don't evoke an action, or that don't name the responsible agent, or don't put the agent first -- or even just to phrases that involve a form of to be.

If you are one of the lucky few who knows what "passive voice" really means, then this exercise will be easy. All you need to do is to underline all examples of verbs in the passive voice, in the following 20 English sentences, taken from today's news:

  1. We were hoping to come to some sort of consensus.
  2. South Florida is under consideration to be the new headquarters of Chiquita Brands International.
  3. The A(H5N1) strain of bird flu has been responsible for tens of millions of animal deaths in Asia.
  4. 61 militants were killed in Nalchik on Thursday and Friday and 27 more were detained.
  5. Kenya faces a serious threat of a polio outbreak.
  6. An unoccupied Missaukee County home was leveled by an explosion and fire.
  7. She tried to avoid being photographed.
  8. Dye delivered a ground ball to shortstop that allowed Podsednik to score.
  9. We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful music, but were profoundly annoyed by the staging.
  10. Owen Hargreaves has agreed to extend his contract with Bundesliga.
  11. I was surprised that it took them as long as this to do a feature like Media Center.
  12. Alstead resident Lilla Kiraly said that her family was lucky to have avoided being caught in the floods.
  13. It must be seen to be believed.
  14. Students were frustrated, annoyed, and angry when blocked by internet filters.
  15. A drug modeled on marijuana’s active ingredient increased brain cells and appeared to cut anxious, depressed behavior in rats.
  16. A roof-top air conditioning unit is likely the source of the deadly legionnaires' disease outbreak that has killed 17 in Toronto.
  17. Pop singer Mariah Carey believes she has been born again several times in this lifetime.
  18. She has been included in discussions of major personnel decisions and policy issues at City Hall.
  19. Normal flight service was being restored Friday at the airport in India's financial hub of Mumbai.
  20. That gut-wrenching day in Montevideo will be laid to rest.

If you're uncertain about a particular case, briefly explain your thoughts pro and con.

[There are no more questions to answer below this line...]

What is passive voice, anyhow?

(A very abbreviated summary of pp. 1427-1447 from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)

Passive contrasts with active in a system of voice:

(a) Oswald assassinated Kennedy.
(b) Kennedy was assassinated by Oswald.

The term voice applies to a system in which semantic roles are aligned with syntactic functions in different ways, usually marked by differences in verb morphology. In clauses that express an action, like (a) and (b) above, the active voice (a) has the subject Oswald aligns with the active role of agent, the one who performed the action; while the passive voice (b) has the subject Kennedy aligned with the passive role of patient, the one on whom the action was performed.

(An analogous system operates in clauses that don't express an action, like "The cabinet members hated the president".)

There are four typical structural differences between active and passive clauses in English:

(1) The subject of the active appears (optionally) in the passive as the complement of the preposition by.
(2) The object of the active appears as the subject of the passive.
(3) The verb of the active appears in the passive as a past participle (assassinated, stolen, etc.)
(4) The passive contains an extra verb, (a form of) the auxiliary be.

Some options and qualifications:

The by-phrase may be missing:

His plan was rejected by the board.   

His plan was rejected.

Indirect objects may be passivized:

Her paper is referred to by everyone.

The past participle is also used in the (active) perfect, e.g. Pat has stolen my surfboard.

Sometimes passives occur with get rather than be:

Kim was mauled by our neighbor's dog.
Kim got mauled by our neighbor's dog.

And sometimes "bare passives" occur with no auxiliary at all:

He saw Kim mauled by our neighbor's dog.

The English active/passive system also operates in for/to clauses:

The best solution is (for Dr. Jones) to examine your son.
The best solution is for your son to be examined (by Dr. Jones).

and likewise in V+ing clauses:

Sam beating Kim was a surprise.
Kim being beaten (by Sam) was a surprise.

He dislikes you watching him.
He dislikes being watched (by you).

The active/passive system also applies in clauses with seems to, may and similar verbs:

Kim seems to intimidate Pat.   

Pat seems to be intimidated by Kim.

Jill may chair the meeting.

The meeting may be chaired by Jill.

The verb be often does not mark the passive, but is simply a copula introducing a predicative complement:

Leslie was angry with Kim.
The vase was in pieces.
Sam is a basket case.

Similar meanings can sometimes be expressed by clauses that participate in the active/passive system, e.g. Leslie was angered by Kim. Since -ed forms can often be adjectives (e.g. a married woman), some forms can be ambiguous between passive and adjectival forms. (See pp. 1436-1439 of CGEL if you want more detail.)

Background: why does anyone care?

A long tradition sees the active voice as direct, bold, concise, vigorous, forcible, responsible, confident, lively, emphatic and manly, while describing the passive voice as tame, perfunctory, indefinite, vague, unclear and other ungood things.

In 1797, after Noah Webster said of William Cobbett that "It was strongly suspected many months ago, that his principles are not very friendly to the independence of America, and still less to the form of our government", Cobbett accused Webster of cowardice:

"It was strongly suspected." This is the true gossiping, calumniating style. All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice, that, what they cannot prove, they may at last throw on public report. If you had said, ' I suspected many months ago,' though it would have led to a detection, you would have acted more like a man... "

(The whole story is here, if you're interested.)

In Elements of Style (1918), William Strunk urged students to "use the active voice", because "[t]he habitual use of the active voice ... makes for forcible writing."

The Iran-Contra affair led to felony convictions for Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, defense secretary, and an assistant secretary of state. Many people criticized Reagan for responding to this scanal by saying, in December of 1986, that "mistakes were made." Here's typical example of this criticism:

There's also a Matt Groening cartoon, from his Life in Hell series, where Binky (a child-like person) is standing in front of a completely trashed room, while a threatening adult figure looms over him in the foreground. Binky looks up and says "Mistakes were made." Some criticized Henry Kissinger for using the same phrase in a more recent Q&A in London.

Note that the complaints about the passive generally refer to properties that it shares with other constructions. Thus passive sentences can be used to be vague about responsibility; passive sentences focus on semantic roles such as patient and stimulus rather than agent or experiencer; passive sentences are generally longer (because of adding a form of to be, etc.). But all of these concerns apply equally well to non-passive forms, as in the following examples:

Leslie chose Kim.  

Kim was chosen (by Kim).
Kim was the choice. (or Kim was Leslie's choice)
Kim emerged at the top of the selection process
    (that Kim managed)

Cobbett and Strunk certainly knew what passive voice meant, because they were well trained in traditional grammar. These days, students are often taught to "avoid passive voice" by people who themselves don't know what the term means.

An interesting case emerged in 2003, when an organization called "Honest Reporting" published a study claiming bias in Reuters news agency headlines. A part of the study claimed that "Violent acts by Palestinians are described with 'active voice' verbs in 33% of the headlines. Violent acts by Israelis are described with 'active voice' verbs in 100% of the headlines." The study may very well have found genuine evidence of bias, but unfortunately for its credibility, two thirds of the examples provided were wrongly classified. In fact, they seem to have been counting explicit expression of agency rather than active vs. passive verbs. Geoff Pullum discussed this case in detail here, if you're interested.

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