10 Passive

In this chapter, we first present some general characteristics of the passive and then a movement analysis of it. Although superficially the passive does not resemble subject raising, the analysis of it that we present views the two constructions as analogous in certain respects. Moreover, as we will show, subject raising turns out to be analogous not just to the passive of simple clauses, but also to the passive of complex clauses containing ECM verbs. All three phenomena (subject raising, passive of simple clauses, passive of ECM verbs) turn out to obey a correlation called Burzio's generalization, according to which verbs that lack an agent argument also lack the ability to check case on their complement. In a final section, we show that there are two types of case, structural and inherent, and that Burzio's generalization holds only for structural case.

Characteristics of the passive

In English, as in most other languages, active sentences like (1a) have passive counterparts like (1b).

(1) a. Active Nancy approved them.
Thematic roles Agent Theme
Grammatical functions Subject Direct object
b. Passive They were approved (by Nancy).
Thematic roles Theme Agent
Grammatical functions Subject Object of preposition

Passivization has a number of effects. First and foremost, the agent argument, which is expressed as the subject of the active sentence, is demoted in the passive to an optional by phrase. Second, the theme argument is promoted from object to subject. In other words, the agent and theme arguments are linked to different grammatical functions in the passive than in the active. Third, a past participle in the passive, unlike one in the active, can't check objective case.

(2) a. Active   Nancy has approved them.
b. Passive * Itexpl was approved them.
Intended meaning: 'They were approved.'

In English, the passive is expressed analytically by a combination of the past participle and a form of the auxiliary verb be. Other languages allow the passive to be expressed synthetically, as illustrated in (3) for Korean and in (4) for Latin.

(3) a.   Active
Chulswu-ka  kyehoyk-ul  helak-  ha-    yessta.
Chulswu nom plans   acc approve active past
Agent      Theme
Subject     Direct object
'Chulswu approved the plans.'
b. Passive
Kyehoyk-i   (chulswu-eyuyhaye) helak-  toy-    essta.
plans   nom  Chulswu by        approve passive past
Theme       Agent
Subject      Object of postposition
'The plans were approved (by Chulswu).'
(4) a.   Active
Puer-0   claud-it        port-am.
boy  nom close 3.sg.pres door acc
Agent                    Theme
Subject                  Direct object
'The boy is closing the door.'
b.   Passive
Port-a   claud-it-       ur      (a  puer-o).
door nom close 3.sg.pres passive  by boy  abl
Theme                                Agent
Subject                              Object of preposition
'The door is being closed (by the boy).'

In these languages, it is the bound morphemes -toy- and -ur that result in the effects of passivization mentioned above. As in English, the grammatical functions of the agent and theme arguments differ in the active and the passive. Also, as in English, the passive participle cannot check the case that active verb forms can.

(5) a.   *
Kyehoyk-ul  (chulswu-eyuyhaye) helak-  toy-    essta.
plans   acc  Chulswu by        approve passive past
Intended meaning: 'The plans were approved (by Chulswu).'
b.   *
Claud-it-       ur      port-am  (a  puer-o).
close 3.sg.pres passive door acc  by boy  abl
Intended meaning: 'The door is being closed by the boy.'

Returning to English, the properties of the passive participle suggest that it is not a verb, but rather a deverbal adjective (that is, an adjective that is morphologically derived from a verb). Ordinary adjectives in English can't check case, so this immediately accounts for the inability of the passive participle to do so in (2b). The idea that passive participles are adjectives seems to run into difficulties, though, in connection with aspectual semantics. Aspect is a complex linguistic category having to do with the kinds of situations that verbs and verb phrases can denote, but for present purposes, we need to distinguish only two such situations: events and states. In English, a convenient diagnostic is that events, but not states, can appear in the progressive.

(6) a. Eventive Non-progressive   The police arrested many demonstrators.
b. Progressive The police are arresting many demonstrators.
(7) a. Stative Non-progressive   He knows the address.
b. Progressive * He is knowing the address.

Passive participles can be used to denote events, as in the passive counterparts of (6) that are given in (8), whereas adjectives in English are generally stative, as shown in (9).

(8) a. Eventive Non-progressive   Many demonstrators were arrested (by the police).
b. Progressive   Many demonstrators were being arrested (by the police).
(9) a. Stative Non-progressive   She is tall; scholarships are available.
b. Progressive * She is being tall; scholarships are being available.

The aspectual contrast between (8) and (9) therefore seems to raise a difficulty for the idea that participles are adjectives. However, though rare, it is possible for adjectives in English to be eventive. This is shown by (10a), which is synonymous with (10b); note that early and late are adjectives in (10a) and adverbs in (10b).

(10) a.   They were { early, late. }
b.   They arrived { early, late. }

As expected, eventive adjectives like early and late can also appear in connection with the progressive; cf. the acceptability of both (11a) and (11b).

(11) a.   They are being { early, late } (again).
b.   They are arriving { early, late } (again).

Given the existence of eventive adjectives, then, the eventive aspectual semantics of the passive participles in (8) turns out to be unproblematic.

In addition to the eventive aspectual semantics just discussed, passive participles can also have stative aspectual semantics, as illustrated by the aspectual contrast in (12).

(12)     Aspect Example Discourse context

a. Event   The door is locked (by the janitor). The janitor locks the door at exactly 5 p.m. without fail.
b. State The door is locked. It's now 5:15 p.m.

As one would expect, stative participles cannot occur in the progressive.

(13)     Aspect Example Discourse context

a. Event The door is being locked. The janitor always locks the door at exactly 5 p.m. without fail, and it's now exactly 5 p.m.
b. State * The door is being locked. It's now 5:15 p.m.

Finally, passive participles can go so far as to lose their verbal properties completely. They can then appear in the comparative and superlative like ordinary gradable adjectives, and they can form un- adjectives, as shown in (14).

(14) a.   She's more { committed, educated, enlightened, interested, satisfied } than he is.
b.   They're the most { committed, educated, enlightened, interested, satisfied } people I know
c.   uncommitted, uneducated, unenlightened, uninterested, unsatisfied

A movement analysis of the passive

Object idiom chunks

In addition to the subject idiom chunks discussed in
Chapter 9, English also has object idiom chunks. As their name implies, these are licensed as the objects of particular verbs. Some examples are given in (15) (Radford 1988:422). The object idiom chunks are in italics, and the licensing verbs are in green.

(15) a.   Let's take advantage of the situation.
b. They are making some headway on a solution.
c. They will { give, pay } heed to her proposal.
d. The Prime Minister paid homage to the dead.
e. She took note of what I said.
f. The government keeps tabs on his operations.

The restriction of object idiom chunks to the complement position of the licensing verb is thrown into striking relief by the contrast between nearly synonymous expressions such as attention and heed, or progress and headway (Radford 1988:423). The variants with the ordinary expressions (attention, progress) are fine, but those with the idiom chunks (heed, headway) are not since they are not licensed by the verbs in red.

(16) a.   He's always trying to attract my { attention, *heed. }
b. He's a child who requires a lot of { attention, *heed. }
(17) a. Please be prepared to report some { progress, *headway } by Monday.
b. We appreciate your { progress, *headway } in solving the problem.

Given their licensing requirements, it isn't surprising that object idiom chunks are generally ungrammatical in subject position.

(18) a.   { Attention, *heed } facilitates learning.
b. More { attention, *heed } to maintenance would soon pay off in lower repair bills.
c. { Progress, *headway } is often slower than one expects.

Object idiom chunks are, however, able to occur in subject position under one condition---in passive sentences where the passive participle is that of the licensing verb. This is illustrated by the contrast between (19) and (20) (Radford 1988:423).

(19) a.   Little advantage was taken of the situation.
b. Some headway is being made on a solution.
c. Little heed was paid to her proposal.
d. Due homage was paid to the dead.
e. Little note was taken of what I said.
f. Close tabs were kept on his operations.
(20) a. * My heed was attracted immediately.
b. * Your close heed is required.
c. * A bit of headway was reported at the meeting.
d. * Our headway in solving the problem wasn't sufficiently appreciated.


We now turn to an analysis of the passive that takes into consideration the facts that we have just presented. We begin by recalling the key assumption of the analysis of subject raising in Chapter 9, namely that special subjects invariably originate as specifiers of their licensing predicates. A straightforward consequence of this assumption is that when special subjects function as the subjects of a higher clause, they must have moved there from their original position. We can think of this process of subject raising as extending the relation between a special subject and its licenser without giving up the locality of the licensing relationship, which is preserved by the lowest trace in the movement chain.

As we have just seen, object idiom chunks in active sentences are locally licensed as well, namely as the complements of a licensing verb, and this local relationship is extended in passive sentences. In other words, although the licensing relationship differs in both cases (spec-predicate for subject raising, head-comp for passive), the passive is analogous to subject raising in that both constructions exhibit the extension of an otherwise very strict local licensing relationship. Because of this fundamental similarity, it makes sense to treat the passive as a further instance of movement.

Our movement analysis of the passive is based on the premise that theme arguments originate in the same structural position in both the active and the passive. This means that the elementary trees for active and passive participles both contain a complement position. However, the elementary trees for the two categories also differ in several ways. First, as discussed earlier, passive participles are adjectives. Second, in the active, the agent argument is obligatorily linked to (= expressed in) Spec(VP), whereas in the passive, it is optionally linked to an adjunct by phrase. We will represent this by omitting Spec(VP) in the elementary tree for the passive participle. Finally, passive participles in English cannot check objective case; recall the ungrammaticality of (2b). The elementary trees we propose for active and passive participles are thus as shown in (21).

(21) a.       b.  
Active: [ + obj ] Passive: [ - obj ]

It is worth noticing the following correlation. Active verbs, including active participles, link their agent argument to the specifier position and are able to check objective case, whereas passive participles have neither property. This correlation between the linking of a head's agent argument to its specifier position and the head's ability to check objective case is known as Burzio's generalization (Burzio 1986).

In what follows, we illustrate the derivation of a passive sentence like (22).

(22)     The proposal was adopted.

First, we substitute the theme argument the proposal in the elementary tree in (21b). This yields (23a). We then substitute (23a) as the complement of the passive auxiliary verb was, as in (23b). For simplicity, we will assume that auxiliary verbs, like raising verbs and passive participles, lack a specifier position. The resulting structure then substitutes as the complement of I, as in (23c).

(23) a.       b.       c.  
Substitute theme argument in (21b) Substitute (23a) as complement of passive auxiliary Substitute (23b) as complement of I

Because of the inability of the passive participle to check objective case, the theme argument's case feature cannot be checked in the complement position in a structure like (23b). Since every case feature must be checked, the theme argument must move to the closest position in which case can be checked. This position is Spec(IP), where it is possible for nominative case on the theme argument to be checked by finite I. The resulting final structure is shown in (24). (For simplicity, the tree in (24) doesn't show the verb movement of was from V to I.)


According to the analysis just presented, the passive is analogous to subject raising in the following way. In both cases, a noun phrase (the subject of the complement clause with subject raising, the object with passive) originates in a position in which case can't be checked. This forces the relevant noun phrase (complement subject, object) to move to the closest position where case can be checked. Of course, subject raising and the passive aren't identical in every respect. There are two important differences between the two instances of movement. First, the path from the head of the chain to its tail contains a clause boundary (IP) in the case of subject raising, but not in the case of the passive.

Recall that the term head has two completely different meanings that shouldn't be confused. The head of an X' structure is the syntactic category that immediately dominates a word or morpheme and projects an intermediate and a maximal projection. The head of a movement chain is simply the highest element in the chain.

(25) a.       b.  
Subject raising Passive

Second, as noted earlier, the grammatical function of the moved noun phrase changes in the passive from object to subject. In subject raising, on the other hand, the grammatical function of the moved noun phrase doesn't change; it starts out as a subject and ends up as one.

The passive and nonfinite complementation

In this section, we focus on the passive of ECM verbs like expect, which were introduced in connection with head-spec licensing in Chapter 8. Consider the sentences in (26).

(26) a.   Your folks expect you to call.
b.   You are expected to call.

The elementary tree for expect in (26a) is given in (27a). In accordance with the previous discussion, the elementary tree for the passive participle expected is as in (27b). The difference between the two trees is analogous to that between the trees in (21); the only difference is the syntactic category of the complement (DP in the case of ordinary verbs, IP in the case of ECM verbs). Note that the elementary tree in (27b) is missing a specifier position; in accordance with Burzio's generalization, it also lacks the ability to check objective case.

(27) a.       b.  
Active: [ + obj ] Passive: [ - obj ]

In what follows, we illustrate the derivation of (26b). The derivation of the complement clause is shown in (28); we assume that the complement subject moves from Spec(VP) to Spec(IP) to provide the complement clause with a subject (recall the subject requirement discussed in Chapter 3).

(28) a.       b.       c.  
Structure of complement VP Substitute (28a) as complement of nonfinite I Move subject of complement clause

The subsequent steps of the derivation involving the matrix clause are as shown in (29).

(29) a.       b.       c.  
Substitute (28c) as complement of passive participle of ECM verb Substitute (29a) as complement of passive auxiliary Substitute (29b) as complement of matrix I

In (29c), the subject of the complement clause cannot check case with the participle of the ECM verb in the head-spec configuration because the participle, being passive, lacks the ability to check case. Therefore, the complement subject must move to the nearest position where case can be checked. This is the matrix Spec(IP), where nominative case is checked. The resulting structure is shown in (30).


Consider now the chain headed by you in (30). The chain consists of three links, which occupy the matrix Spec(IP), the complement Spec(IP), and the complement Spec(VP). Recall from Chapter 9 that subject raising also results in chains whose links consist of these three positions. In this respect, then, the passive of ECM verbs is analogous to subject raising, as is evident from comparing the schematic structures in (31). The only difference is that the structure of ECM passives is slightly more complex because of the passive auxiliary in the matrix clause.

(31) a.       b.  
ECM passive chain Raising chain

The reason that the chains in (31) are analogous is that the passive participle of the ECM verb and the subject raising verb both obey Burzio's generalization. In other words, as shown in (32), both heads fail to project a specifier position, and they are both unable to check case.

(32) a.       b.  
[ - obj ] [ - obj ]

Although Burzio's generalization itself remains to be explained, it does allow us to understand the ungrammaticality of all three sentences in (33) as stemming from a single source. In all three sentences, the head (highlighted in italics), fails to be associated with an agent and hence fails to project Spec(VP),1 yet contrary to Burzio's generalization case would have to be checked on the underlined noun phrases, in either the head-spec configuration, as in (33a,b) or the head-comp configuration, as in (33c).

(33) a. * Itexpl seems [ him to have a problem. ]
b. * Itexpl is expected [ him to have a problem. ]
c. * Itexpl was approved them.

Structural versus inherent case

In languages with morphologically richer case systems than English, there is evidence for a distinction between two types of case: structural, on the one hand, and inherent, on the other.

For instance, the following German examples show that the active participle unterstützt 'supported' checks accusative case, but that the homonymous passive participle cannot. Instead, in the passive, nominative case on the theme argument is checked by finite I (a silent [pres] element), as in English. (The following examples are all given in the form of subordinate clauses in order to abstract away from an irrelevant word order effect in German main clauses that we discuss in Chapter 13.)

(34)   Active:  
dass wir dies-en   Kandidat-en  unterstützt haben
that we  this acc candidate acc supported   have
'that we have supported this candidate'
(35) a. Passive:
dass dies-er  Kandidat- 0   unterstützt wurde
that this nom candidate nom supported   was
'that this candidate was supported'
b. *
dass dies-en  Kandidat- en  unterstützt wurde
that this acc candidate acc supported   was 

In contrast to verbs that check the accusative, however, verbs that check the dative continue to check that case even in the passive. This is shown in (36) and (37).

(36)   Active:  
dass wir dies-em  Kandidat-  en  geholfen haben
that we  this  dat candidate dat helped   have
'that we helped this candidate'
(37) a. Passive: *
dass dies-er  Kandidat- 0   geholfen wurde
that this nom candidate nom helped   was
Intended meaning: 'that this candidate was helped'
b. ok
dass dies-em  Kandidat -en  geholfen wurde
that this dat candidate dat helped   was

The accusative and the dative are both checked in the head-comp configuration by the verbs unterstützen and helfen, respectively, but they differ in that the accusative alternates with the nominative, whereas the dative doesn't. What we mean by 'alternate' is simply that an accusative object in the active corresponds to a nominative subject in the passive, whereas a dative object in the active remains dative in the passive. The alternating cases (nominative, accusative) are referred to as structural cases, whereas the nonalternating case (dative) is referred to as an inherent case.

The distinction between structural and inherent case has consequences for the proper formulation of Burzio's generalization. In view of the facts just presented, it holds only for verbs that check structural case.

An important question that arises in connection with (37b) is what element checks the nominative case feature of the finite I. It is generally assumed that German has a silent expletive element, corresponding to English expletive it or there, that checks nominative case in Spec(IP). The structure of (37b) is then as in (38). (For simplicity, we don't show the movement of the passive auxiliary---in this case, wurde---to the past tense I.)


It is worth noting that the silent expletive bears a number feature with the default value 'singular'. Evidence for this comes from the number agreement pattern in (39): the overt plural subject in (39a) agrees with a plural verb form, whereas the silent expletive in (39b) agrees with the corresponding singular verb form.

(39) a.  
dass die Kandidaten     unterstützt { wurden, *wurde }
that the candidates.nom supported     were     was
'that the candidates were supported'
dass den Kandidaten     geholfen { wurde, *wurden }
that the candidates.dat helped     was     were
'that the candidates were helped'
literally: 'that it { was, *were } helped the candidates'


1. We are assuming that expletive it in (33) would substitute into Spec(IP).

Exercises and problems

Exercise 10.1

A. Using the
all purpose grammar tool, build structures for the sentences in (1).

(1) a.   The puppeteers might be arrested.
b.   The puppeteers were arrested.

B. In addition to the passive auxiliary be, English has a second passive auxiliary---get---which is illustrated in (2).

(2) a.   The puppeteers might get arrested.
b.   The puppeteers got arrested.

There is a purely syntactic difference betweeen the two passive auxiliaries be and get. What is it?

The answer is purely syntactic.

Exercise 10.2

A. Using the all purpose grammar tool, build structures for the sentences in (1).

(1) a. Standard English   The car needs to be washed.
b. Pittsburgh English   The car needs washed.

B. Based on the evidence in (1), compare the syntactic properties of Standard English versus Pittsburgh English need. Be explicit but brief.

Exercise 10.3

A. Using the all purpose grammar tool, build structures for the sentences in (1) and (2).

(1) a.   We expect them to make headway.
b. We expect headway to be made.
c. Headway is expected to be made.
(2) a.   The media expect the guerillas to free the journalist.
b. The media expect the journalist to be freed by the guerillas.
c. The journalist is expected to be freed by the guerillas.

B. One of the sentences in (2) is structurally ambiguous. Briefly explain which one it is.

Don't just identify the ambiguous sentence.

Exercise 10.4

A. Using the all purpose grammar tool, build structures for the sentences in (1).

(1) a.   They proved there to be an error in the calculation.
b.   There proved to be an error in the calculation.

B. Which case is checked on the underlined noun phrases? How do you know?

C. In which licensing configuration(s) is case checked on the underlined noun phrases?

D. The syntactic properties of prove differ in (1a) and (1b). Briefly explain how.

Exercise 10.5

A. The sentences in (1) are ungrammatical in standard English. Why?

(1) a. * The path from I to V is intervened by an illicit node.
b. * In the next sentence, the original subject has been substituted by a pronoun.

B. Omitting the by phrase in the sentences in (1) yields the grammaticality contrast in (2). Why?

(2) a. * The path from I to V is intervened.
b. ok In the next sentence, the original subject has been substituted.

Problem 10.1

Radford 1997:365 reports the passive constructions in (1), in which try and attempt have different syntactic properties than they do in ordinary usage. Describe the differences, addressing the following issues:

(1) a.   The word has tried to be defined in terms of a phonetic matrix.
b. Dialects are often attempted to be suppressed.
c. Some journalists have been attempted to be attacked.