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Reviewed by:
  • Deconstructing the English passive
  • Britta Mondorf
Deconstructing the English passive. By Anja Wanner. (Topics in English linguistics 41.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. Pp. 230. ISBN 9783110199215. $165 (Hb).

Anja Wanner's research monograph on English passive constructions fills a gap in the longstanding discussion of passivization by bridging the divide between formalist and functionalist approaches and by focusing on syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic issues on a wide and well-informed basis.

The monograph comprises six chapters, partly based on empirical research findings emanating from corpus studies. Starting out with an introduction (Ch. 1), W poses the question of what motivates speakers' choice of the passive over the active, given that the passive (i) is more marked morphologically, (ii) deviates from the prototypical link between position and semantic role in which subjects are agents and objects are themes, and (iii) is generally harder to process than its active counterpart. An easy-to-read theoretical overview of the passive is provided in Ch. 2. In Ch. 3 the ingredients of the passive are described and empirically analyzed on the basis of the Freiburg-Brown (FROWN) corpus—with a laudable twenty-page extension dedicated to the GET-passive. Ch. 4 is reserved for a detailed treatment of the agent in passives, leading up to the core section of the book. It presents a synchronic corpus analysis of the effects of genre differences, which is related to previous findings on the diachronic development of the passive. The conclusion (Ch. 6) sums up the main arguments and discusses their implications in a concise and highly readable fashion.

The book begins with a sound introduction to the state of the art, addressing the relevance of analyzing passives for comparative linguistics, generative frameworks, and functional and discourse-oriented [End Page 452] research. When addressing theoretical issues, W successfully tries to bridge the gap between formalist and functionalist approaches. Though some assumptions formulated in principles-and-parameters approaches and restated throughout the book may not be uncritically accepted by all (e.g. claims about a movement operation involving a 'rearrangement' of major constituents (31, 53)), W convincingly shows that by making the perspectives of formalist and functional approaches visible to each other, we gain new insights into the operation of the English passive. Along with Comrie (1988) she holds that the active can be considered basic in terms of four parameters: (i) frequency (the active is more frequent than passive), (ii) formal complexity (the passive has more morphemes), (iii) productivity (all verbs used in the active can be used in the passive, but not vice versa), and (iv) discourse distribution (the active is preferred unless there are discourse-based reasons to use the passive). Ch. 2, 'The English passive and linguistic theory', summarizes previous formalist and functionalist research on passive constructions, as well as developing a morpheme-based definition of the passive. W follows Haspelmath's (1990:25) suggestion that the passive is foremost a verbal morphological category, since passive constructions without a passive participle do not exist, whereas passives do occur (i) without theme subjects (It was assumed that ...)—that is, there is no 'movement' of an object NP to subject position; (ii) without by-phrases—in fact, these cases are far more frequent than long passives (cf. Biber et al. 1999:938); and (iii) without BE (She got promoted) or as bare passives without any other explicit auxiliary (The race run by Harry (15)).

Rather than defining the passive on the basis of the traditionally employed syntactic template (NP BE Ven by NP), W opts for a wider-scope definition that is able to encompass a whole range of functionally overlapping passive constructions that cannot be accommodated in more traditional conceptions. Her definition of passives requires a passive participle, an implicit external argument that is not in subject position, and a propositional content equivalent to that of its corresponding active sentence. This wider definition also permits her to account for the contested status of GET as an auxiliary by acknowledging that negated sentences containing GET still require do-support: She was/*got not promoted (17). Thus, the morpheme-based definition proves better suited to encompass highly divergent passive constructions, such as raising...


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