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Show full table of contents The impersonal passive

This section discusses the impersonal passive in more detail, subsection I starts by discussing the verb types that may enter the impersonal passive construction. Section, sub I, has already shown that unaccusative verbs are normally excluded in passive constructions, but there seem to be a number of exceptional cases, which will be discussed in Subsection II.

[+]  I.  Verbs entering the impersonal passive construction

The impersonal passive is found with verbs that do not take a nominal direct object in the active voice. This set includes (pseudo-)intransitive verbs like lachen'to laugh', lezen'to read' and voetballen in (50a), intransitive PO-verbs like spreken (over)'to talk about' in (50b), and verbs with a clausal direct object like vertellen'to tell' in (50c).

Example 50
a. Marie lacht/leest/voetbalt.
  Marie laughs/reads/plays.soccer
  'Marie is laughing/reading/playing soccer.'
a'. Er wordt (door Marie) gelachen/gelezen/gevoetbald.
  there  is   by Marie  laughed/read/played.soccer
b. Wij spraken lang over dat voorstel.
  we  talked  long  about that proposal
  'We talked about that proposal for a long time.'
b'. Er werd (door ons) lang over dat voorstel gesproken.
  there  was   by us  long  about that proposal  talked
c. Jan vertelde (mij) [dat het boek gestolen was].
  Jan told   me  that  the book  stolen  was
  'Jan told (me) that the book was stolen.'
c'. Er werd (mij) (door Jan) verteld [dat het boek gestolen was].
  there  was   me   by Jan  told   that  the book  stolen  was

The primed examples in (50) show that, since impersonal passives lack a subject (nominative DP), expletive er'there' can be inserted. In main clauses, this is normally obligatory unless some topicalized constituent occupies the sentence-initial position. If the topicalized phrase is an adjunct, as in (51), er is optional.

Example 51
a. Op het grasveld wordt (er) veel gevoetbald.
  on the field  is  there  a.lot  played.soccer
b. Tijdens die vergadering werd (er) lang over dat voorstel gesproken.
  during the meeting  was  there  long  about that proposal  talked
c. Door Peter werd (er) verteld [dat het boek gestolen was].
  by Peter  was  there  told   that  the book  stolen  was

If the topicalized phrase is an internal argument, as in (52), er is often obligatorily omitted; this holds especially if the internal argument has the form of a clause.

Example 52
a. Over dat voorstel werd (??er) tijdens die vergadering lang gesproken.
  about that proposal  was  there  during that meeting  long  talked
b. [Dat het boek gestolen was] werd (*er) door Peter verteld.
  that  the book  stolen  was  was  there  by Peter  told

The difference between constructions with and without expletive er in the middle field of the clause seems to be related to the presence of a presupposition ("old" information): the presence of er indicates that the sentence does not contain a presupposition, whereas the absence of er indicates that there is a presupposition; cf. Bennis (1986). In (51) and (52), the presuppositions are the topicalized phrases, but topicalization is not a prerequisite for dropping er, as is clear from the fact that er can also be omitted in the embedded clauses in (53), in which topicalization is excluded; er is only required if the phrases in question express new information.

Example 53
a. dat (er) op het grasveld veel gevoetbald wordt.
  that  there  on the field  a.lot  played.soccer  is
b. dat (er) tijdens die vergadering lang over dat voorstel gesproken werd.
  that  there  during the meeting  long  about proposal  talked  was
c. dat (er) door Peter verteld werd [dat het boek gestolen was].
  that  there  by Peter  told  was   that  the book  stolen  was

That the presence of er in the middle field depends on the presence of a presupposition is especially clear from the examples in (54). These examples show that the pronominal indirect object mij'me' blocks expletive er if it does not occur in sentence-initial position. This effect is due to the fact that the referents of referential personal pronouns are normally part of the presupposition of the clause. The numbers in square brackets support the judgments given in (54) by providing the results of a Google search (7/24/2011) on the strings [ er werd/is mij verteld], [ dat er mij verteld werd/is], [ dat er mij werd/is verteld], and [ dat mij verteld werd/is]/[ dat mij werd/is verteld].

Example 54
a. Er werd mij verteld dat het boek gestolen was.
  there  was  me  told  that  the book  stolen  was
b. * dat er mij verteld werd dat het boek gestolen was.
  that  there  me  told  was  that  the book  stolen  was
b'. dat mij verteld werd dat het boek gestolen was.
  that  me  told  was  that  the book  stolen  was

With regard to (50c) it can further be noted that active clauses with a clausal direct object give rise to the impersonal passive only if there is no anticipatory pronoun. In other words, example (55a) only gives rise to the personal passive in (55b), with the anticipatory pronoun het promoted to subject.

Example 55
a. Jan heeft het verteld dat het boek gestolen was.
  Jan has  it  told  that  the book  stolen  was
b. Het werd door Jan verteld dat het boek gestolen was.
  it  was  by Jan  told  that  the book  stolen  was
[+]  II.  Exceptional behavior of unaccusative verbs

Section, sub I, claimed that the demotion of the external argument of the verb is the core property of passivization on the basis of the fact that unaccusative verbs cannot be passivized. This subsection discusses a number of special cases, in which an unaccusative verb can be found in the impersonal passive.

[+]  A.  Unaccusative verbs used as intransitives

In certain special contexts, which we will refer to as stage contexts, it is possible to use certain unaccusative verbs as intransitive verbs; cf. Perlmutter (1978) and Van Hout (1996). The verbs vallen'to fall' and sterven'to die' no longer denote uncontrolled processes in such contexts, but controlled activities. For completeness' sake, note that expressing the "actors" of the activity in an agentive door-phrase seems to give rise to a less felicitous result.

Example 56
a. In het tweede bedrijf werd er op tijd gevallen.
  in the second act  was  there  on the.right.moment  fallen
  'In the second act the actor(s) fell at the right moment.'
a'. ? In het tweede bedrijf werd (er) door die acteur op tijd gevallen.
b. In deze uitvoering wordt er op magistrale wijze gestorven.
  in this performance  is  there  in masterly way  died
  'In this performance, the actor(s) die in a masterly way.'
b'. ? In deze uitvoering wordt (er) door de acteur op magistrale wijze gestorven.
[+]  B.  Non-eventive use of impersonal passives

Impersonal passives derived from unaccusative verbs can at least marginally be used to denote an outstanding defining property of certain spatially or temporally defined situations. As can be seen by comparing the primeless and primed examples of (57), such impersonal passives normally require a degree modifier like ontzettend veel'terribly much'. The primed examples show that these passive constructions degrade if they contain an agentive door-phrase.

Example 57
a. In de derde wereld wordt *(?ontzettend veel) gestorven.
  in the third world  is       terribly much  died
a'. * In de derde wereld wordt door kinderen ontzettend veel gestorven.
  in the third world  is  by children  terribly much  died
b. Tijdens die wedstrijd werd *(?ontzettend veel) gevallen.
  during that match   was      terribly much  fallen
  'During that match there was a lot of falling.'
b'. * Tijdens die wedstrijd werd door Cruijff ontzettend veel gevallen.
[+]  C.  Questions and exclamatives with impersonal passives

Impersonal passives of unaccusative verbs can sometimes be found in questions and exclamatives that express a strong wish or a command. Example (58) illustrates this for the verb vertrekken'to leave'. Cases like these do not allow an agentive door-phrase.

Example 58
a. Wordt er vandaag nog (*door ons) vertrokken, of wat?
  is  there  today  still     by us left  or what
  'Are we still going to leave today?'
b. En nu wordt er (*door ons) vertrokken!
  and  now  is  there      by us  left
  'And now weʼll leave!'
[+]  D.  Exceptional verbs

A small number of (apparent) unaccusative PO-verbs can occur in the impersonal passive. Example (59) illustrates this for stoppen (met)'to stop (with)'. That stoppen is unaccusative is clear from the fact that it takes the perfect auxiliary zijn, which is sufficient for assuming unaccusative status. Some other verbs behaving like stoppen are beginnen (met)'to start (with)', doorgaan (met)'to carry (on)', ingaan (op)'to comply (with)', uitgaan (van)'to assume' and vooruitlopen (op)'to be ahead (of)'. These verbs are more extensively discussed in Section 2.3.2, sub IV.

Example 59
a. De oliemaatschappij stopt met de proefboringen.
  the oil.company  stops  with the exploratory.drillings
b. Er wordt met de proefboringen gestopt.
  there  is  with the exploratory.drillings  stopped
  • Bennis, Hans1986Gaps and dummiesDordrechtForis Publications
  • Hout, Angeliek van1996Event semantics of verb frame alternations: a case study of Dutch and its acquisitionTilburgTilburg UniversityThesis
  • Perlmutter, D.M1978Impersonal passives and the unaccusative hypothesisBerkeley Linguistics Society4157-189
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