On Adjectival Passives in English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 3,0



1. Introduction

2. Syntactic and Semantic Differences

3. Grammatical Tests for Adjectival status
3.1. Modification of Certain Adjectives
3.2. Replacement of be.
3.3. Addition of prefin un -

4. Restriction of by phrase complements

5. Analysis of the role of prepositions

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

There have been various discussions on verbal passives and adjectival passive constructions. Adjectival passives always have stative interpretations, whereas verbal passives can either have a dynamic or a stative interpretation. The question is whether adjectival passive constructions are supposed to be a type of passive constructions, or merely passives in a derivative sense (cf. Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 1436f). Before researching the differences between the both passive constructions, the main characterization of passive, in general, should be made clear. Åfarli (1992: 8) provides a brief summary of it:

[...] every sentence one might reasonably want to call a passive may be minimally characterized as follows:

(22) a. Relative to its active counterpart, the passive sentence is marked with special verb morphology.

b. The subject of the active sentence never remains subject in the passive counterpart.

This statement is also supported by Emonds (2006: 17) who comments that the stress is laid on the role of the subject phrase and its relation to passive morphology. According to this characterization of passives, it could be asserted that adjectival passives are only a part of a verbal passive construction. Except, it can be proven that adjectives and verbal participles can be distinguished. Emonds (2006: 20) suggests a formula to distinguish between verbal and adjectival passives:

a. In adjectival passives, the head [A- en ] is present in both LF and PF.
b. In verbal passives, [A- en ] is absent in LF and present only in PF.[1]

The suffix – en refers to the simple past in English but it is also the given form for adjectives, which leads to the ambiguity between verbal passives and adjectival passives. The LF, however, helps us to understand whether a passive has an ongoing (dynamic) or a completed (stative) interpretation.

In this paper the main focus is on the differences between verbal and adjectival passives. The following study will show how far adjectival predicatives in a passive construction can be considered as passives. Another aim of this paper is to find out whether adjectives are a derivation from verbs, and whether the derivation is the reason that it is impossible to distinguish them.

The present paper starts with a discussion of semantic differences between verbal and adjectival passives. While, chapter 3 is about the grammatical tests to find out whether it is possible to prove the status of the mentioned passives without any ambiguity, the restriction of by phrase complements in adjectival is exemplified in chapter 4. Furthermore, other prepositions such as at, with, etc., which seem to occur freely in adjectival passives are discussed in chapter 5. Additionally, adjectival passive construction with be and get is illustrated in chapter 6. Finally, this paper ends with a summarising conclusion.

2. Syntactic and Semantic Differences

Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 1436) argue that adjectival passives are not considered as real passives. The complexity of the ambiguity is due to the same lexical forms of adjectives and past participle forms of verbs. It describes a state with an adjective, for example, as in the glass was broken. However, the argument provided by the authors is that was broken is a complex-intransitive construction, that is, be is not only a passive marker in this example but also a copula, taking a predicative complement, namely, broken. In other words, broken is not a verb complement here but a predicative complement, since it’s an adjective in this context. If it were a verbal complement, it should have had the meaning that someone broke the glass as in the dynamic passive of the glass was broken by someone. This is also underlined by Guasti (2004: 248), however, she makes the remark that both verbal and adjectival passives have different syntactic structures. Verbal passives are formed by the A-movement of the object to subject position, that is, within this movement the object moves to Spec IP, where it generates agreement on the inflected verb. On the contrary, the verb assigns a thematic role to the object, which is the internal argument now (Guasti 2004: 246f). This can be illustrated in the syntactic representation:


Therefore, broken heads an adjectival phrase in the adjectival reading, whereas, it heads a verbal phrase in the verbal reading. Guasti also supports the theory of Huddleston and Pullum that there is no ambiguity, if the by phrase is included in a passive construction. According to Huddleston and Pullum, it is in fact inevitable, since the verb be can take complements headed either by adjectives or by past participle verb forms, for example:

3) a. They were very worried.[2]

b. They were married.

In (3a) worried is gradable due to very so that it is considered as an adjective. Yet, it is emphasized by Huddleston and Pullum that the whole clause is not an adjectival passive, but a complex-intransitive clause with an adjectival passive as predicative complement. Dixon (2005: 166) makes a remark on this theory that the passive participle is a verbal form even though it behaves in some ways like an adjective, while the past participle is a derived adjective.Example (3b) is dynamic in a verbal interpretation or it is stative in an adjectival interpretation and hence it is ambiguous. The two given interpretations by Huddleston and Pullum (2002) are that “they were married last week in London” (verbal interpretation) or “Hardly anyone knew that they were married” (adjectival interpretation). However the interpretations may be, Huddleston and Pullum strictly claim that passives are only verbal thus adjectival passives are passives only in a derivative sense. In other words, the examples (1a-b), in terms of adjectival reading, are not termed as passive constructions but as complex-intransitive constructions. Adjectival passive is said to be merely a part of the whole construction so that only the predicative complements very worried and married in their stative interpretations are termed adjectival passive and not the whole sentence. The complexity of the semantic differences increase, nevertheless, as adjectival passives may function as the predicative complement of a dynamic verb as in (1438f):

[39] i It was magnetized.

ii It became magnetized.

Example [39i] is ambiguous due to the ambiguity between the verbal and adjectival reading. In [39ii], conversely, magnetized is adjectival because it is a complement to the verb become. However, magnetized in [39ii] is a dynamic verb because it denotes a change of state and yet it remains an adjectival passive. The reason is that the predicative complement is crucial for a passive status and magnetized still denotes the state resulting from magnetization. Thus, adjectives cannot take predicative complements but verbs can take them. Furthermore, infinitival complement is also restricted to adjectival complement:

[40] ii Max was known to be an alcoholic.

Thus adjective phrases in verbal passives might be confusing as they seem to be adjectival passives. But here it is unambiguously verbal as the adjective known cannot take an infinitival complement because it is ungrammatical as in * Max became known to an alcoholic. Nevertheless, to avoid further misinterpretations, certain grammatical tests can be applied.

3. Grammatical Tests for Adjectival status

3.1. Modification of Certain Adjectives

Huddleston and Pullum (2002: 1436f) elucidate the grammatical tests which can simplify distinguishing verbal and adjectival status of passives. The first test is made by adding intensifiers to the related past participle or adjective. Adjectives can be gradable so that modification with very, too is a possibility to clarify, if a specific predicative complement is an adjectival predicative, as verbs are not gradable at all. The only exception is when an adverb, for instance, much is included in a complement. It’s a sufficient method but not a reliable one to test the adjectival status because only certain adjectives are gradable (Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 1436). This is reasoned by Emonds (2006: 21) with the explanation that fully lexicalised adjectives, for instance, affected, worried, or inhabited are suffixed in the lexicon with the help of derivation. Therefore they are gradable, while other adjectives do not derivefrom verbal roots by suffixation but are formed in the syntax and hence they do not permit degree words. Furthermore, he presents a minimal requirement for grammatical modification:

Many, perhaps all, items that modify only lexical category X0 (here A) require that this X0 be lexicalized throughout a derivation.

Hence, verbs are not gradable as well due to the absence of the – en suffix on a verbal passive LF so that these forms do not permit degree words. However this statement is only correct to a certain limit according to Ackema (1999: 156f). As already mentioned and confirmed by other linguists, verbs can be in fact modified by very much as presented by Ackema:

(155) a. Elizabeth was very much annoyed (by Darcy)

b. Elizabeth was very annoyed (all day)

The first example denotes a verbal interpretation, whereas the latter one has an adjectival reading. The verbal passive conveys that Darcy annoyed Elizabeth very much, while the adjectival passive infers that Elizabeth was very annoyed because something went wrong that she did not expect. In addition to that there is no agent in the adjectival reading because one cannot infer who or what annoyed Elizabeth. Hence, it can be said that the adjectival passive participle can occur in non-thematic passives. This statement is confirmed by who points out that there are six types of passives and each one arises diachronically from a different source construction. The first type of passive he mentions is “the adjectival-resultative construction in English, like a typical passive, is agentless, and its subject is thus by default a topicalized patient” (2006:340). Also Guasti maintains this theory, which is discussed in chapter 2. On the other hand, the complements of looked and seems cannot be headed by verbal participles, which is illustrated in the following section.


[1] Emonds abbreviates the characteristic Logical Form as LF and Phonological Form as PF.

[2] The examples are copied from Huddleston and Pullum, 2002: 1436.

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On Adjectival Passives in English
University of Wuppertal
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Vincey Vattachirayil John (Author), 2010, On Adjectival Passives in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/167193


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