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Passives and impersonals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 December 2003

University of Cambridge


This paper argues that the term ‘passive’ has been systematically misapplied to a class of impersonal constructions that suppress the realization of a syntactic subject. The reclassification of these constructions highlights a typological contrast between two types of verbal diathesis and clarifies the status of putative ‘passives of unaccusatives’ and ‘transitive passives’ in Balto-Finnic and Balto-Slavic. Impersonal verb forms differ from passives in two key respects: they are insensitive to the argument structure of a verb and can be formed from unergatives or unaccusatives, and they may retain direct objects. As with other subjectless forms of personal verbs, there is a strong tendency to interpret the suppressed subject of an impersonal as an indefinite human agent. Hence impersonalization is often felicitous only for verbs that select human subjects.

Research Article
2003 Cambridge University Press

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This paper grew out of a talk presented at Stanford in 1996, while I was a visitor at the Center for the Study of Language and Information. I am grateful to CSLI for their hospitality and to Joan Bresnan and Ivan Sag for their comments on early versions of the paper. Many improvements in the present version are due to discussions and/or correspondence with Farrell Ackerman, Loren Billings, Len Babby, Steve Hewitt, Anna Kibort, John Moore, James Lavine, Peter Matthews, Andrew Spencer and Reeli Torn; the suggestions of Bob Borsley and an anonymous JL referee; and feedback from audiences at Stanford, the University of Massachusetts, Princeton University, and the University of Surrey.