Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Passive Voice and Principle of End-Focus

English verbs have fixed meanings . Their transitivity or intransitivity is pre-detaermined as a result of this . For example, beat always means to give blows and not to receive blows . In other words , beat is a transitive verb which should have a performer (subject) and a sufferer (object) . In English subject always begins a sentence  and object follows the verb . This rigid word-order may sometimes create problems . For example,  in a passage about Mahatma Gandhi, sentences are expected to begin with  the subject viz. Gandhi . If I were to write a sentence like this  in the passage "Godse assassinated Gandhiji on 30 Jan, 1948" , it might sound a bit discordant . But as assassinate is a transitive verb with fixed meaning , I would be forced to begin the sentence with the inappropriate subject .. What is the way out ? The answer is passive construction !

The English language discovered as long ago as the Anglo-Saxon period that past participle of a verb had the force of an adjective . This led to the emergence of present perfect tense and later to the emergence of several perfect tenses . This characteristic of the past participle was put to excellent use for passive construction towards the end of the Middle English period .

As the past participle has a dominant adjectival quality ,the object of the transitive verb  can be shifted to the subject position ,and the relevant form of be verb  made  to  precede the past participle. .  .This  is what is happening in the passive construction . The active voice subject can be shown , if necessary, as a prepositional phrase ( by+ agent) at the end of the passive sentence .

Passive construction gained ground owing to the influence of French during the Middle English period . In French ,  the past participle behaves exactly like an adjective . It agrees with the  subject in number and gender. Hence, be is the regular auxiliary verb before past participle in French in passive construction . English followed the French practice .

In present-day English,  however,  passive construction is widely used whenever the subject is not worth mentioning . such as in scientific  writing , official documents , law etc There is no need for the past participle to have the quality of an adjective  for passive construction in present-day English . .  Passive construction is possible even when the past participle has a dominant actional aspect .

The construction get+ past participle did not find favour with English speakers""My car was repainted last year" is better than"My car got repainted last year " , at any rate , in formal English

Passive construct6ion is preferred when 1) the object  is  more important than the subject 2 )when the subject is unknown and 3)wnen the subject is too obvious to mention it The subject of an active voice sentence can be retained as a prepositional phrase by+ agent in the passive version . As the agent comes at the end of the sentence , it receives end-focus . Thus passive construction  enables us to emphasize the subject of an active sentence by changing it into passive voice .


My son painted this picture 
( no emphasis on my son )

Who painted this picture ? 

This picture was painted by my son 
( focus on my son
N.B Contrastive focus on my son is an alternative way for emphasis . ., but end-focus is generally preferred in  English 

Thank you for visiting

Prof . V.P Rajappan


Monday, November 5, 2012

Dative-Shift and Principle of End-Focus

In  my previous post I explained the Principle of End-Focus . In this present post I propose to examine Dative- Shift or Dative - Alternation in the light of the Principle of End-Focus .

What is dative- shift? You know that there are a few verbs which are capable of taking two objects . Such verbs are called ditransitive verbs . The object which is answer to the question what? is the direct object and the object which is answer to the question to whom / for whom is the indirect object . Look at this example

I gave her a ring .

In this sentence a ring is the direct object and her is the indirect object or the personal object . The indirect  object always precedes the direct object in this type of construction :

subject +verb+indirect object+direct object .

When we view the sentence as an information structure , a ring  is the new information and it gets end-focus .  Ring is pronounced with tonic accent . Thus ring gets prominence or emphasis by virtue of its final position .

It follows from this that in a normal English sentence with ditransitive verbs the direct object gets end-focus .

However, it is possible to re-phrase the sentence in such a way that the indirect object moves to the end of the sentence . As the indirect object  is still playing the recipient role , it is in the dative case . It is preceded by the preposition to or for , depending on the verb used .

1 I bought her a gift.

I bought a gift for her .

2  She made him tea .

She made tea for him . 

3  I gave her a gift .

I gave a gift to her 

When indirect object is shifted to the end of sentences (as in the examples given above), the focus is on the indirect object as it carries new information . 

For whom did you buy a gift? 

I bought a gift for her .

Look at the following examples 

The whole sentence as new information 

What happened at the party/ 

John gave Jane a gift . 

(Here focus is on gift  by virtue of its final position)

To whom did John give  the gift? 

John gave the gift to Jane. 

(jane  gets focus through dative-shifting )

Thus it is possible to emphasize the indirect object by placing it at the end of sentences . 

Thank you for visiting!

Prof .V.P.Rajappan



Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Principle of End-Focus in English Sentences

What is the Principle of End-Focus in English sentences? This elusive principle is the despair of most ESL learners of English . Simply put, it denotes the tendency of the English language to reserve to the end of the sentence the most important piece of information . It may sound a bit paradoxical to most ESL learners of English They may wonder how any sentence element can get prominence by being "relegated" to the end ! Last is the least in their way of perceiving things .

An English sentence conveys a message . A message may comprise an expected or assumed piece of information together with a piece of new information .  Surely, the new information should be given some degree of prominence . The best way to ensure this is by putting it to the end of the sentence where the tone-group  also ends . The last lexical word in the sentence which co-extends  with the tone-group of the sentence receives the tonic accent .The tonic accent  thus highlights the last lexical word . The new information , by being placed at the end of the sentence ,,  will receive more prominence than  it would in any other position in the sentence .

Now take a look at the syntax of a typical English sentence :


As the sentence co-extends withe the tone-group , adverb receives tonic accent . It follows from this that adverb receives prominence in a typical English sentence . as it receives end -focus by virtue of its final position .

However, the English language has resources which permit it to highlight any  sentence element by shifting it to the end where it can receive end- focus . Take thisexample

There is a temple on top of the hill

The lexical element hill receive focus by virtue of its final  position which coincides with the end of the tone-group . If you wish to highlight temple  you need only to turn around the elements in such a way that temple comes at the end of the sentence .

What is on top of the hill?

On top of the hill , there is a temple

In its new position temple gets end-focus , doesn't it?

In my next posts I will explain passivization and dative -shift in the light of the Principle of End-Focu.

Thank you for visiting !

Prof V.P.Rajappan

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Omission of Auxiliary do in Wh-Questions

The omission  of the auxiliary verb do in wh- questions  will  often confuse English language learners . The general structure of a wh- question involving do is 

Wh -word + Auxiliary do  + subject + main verb++adverbial

When the wh-word  is the object of the verb , do is obligatory .It has been obligatory  in Modern English since the 18 th century 

Look at the following sentence:

You saw somebody.

Somebody is the object of the verb saw.  If we ask a question based on somebody , it would be

Whom did you see?

Whom is the object of the verb see and , therefore, did  is used as an auxiliary .

Look at another example :

You wrote something

Something is the object of the verb wrote . If we ask a question based on something , it would be 

What did you write ?

Please remember that the question-words whom , what  which and who are interrogative pronouns When they  are the subject of the verb,  the auxiliary do is not used in questions .  Look at this sentence :

Somebody called you on the phone ..

Somebody is the subject of the sentence , isn't it ?

If we ask a question based on somebody  it would be 

Who called you on the phone? 

Who is the subject of the verb called and , therefore, do is omitted in the question.  

What frightened you ? 

Here, do is omitted because what is the subject of the verb frightened . Something frightened you and the question is based on something which is the subject of the verb .

The English language omits do- support only  when the question  word is the subject of the verb
The question-word itself is the subject  , though. in an interrogative form . Subject-operator inversion is an invariable syntactic feature of an English  interrogative sentence. But as there is no subject   in the body of the  question ,  there is no need to bring in the dummy auxiliary do .for subject-operator inversion .


Thank you for visiting 

Prof . V.P.Rajappan

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why English doesn't have Future Tense

It is indeed an intriguing fact that English does not have future tense . The Anglo-Saxons of yore did not bequeath future tense to the English language . While other languages have separate verb-forms to indicate future tense English is left with none !

We must bear in mind the fact that the early shapers of the English language the Anglo-Saxons ,  lived in an atmosphere with no constraints like prescriptive grammar . The only thing they cared for as far as their language was concerned was communicative effiency and ease of pronunciation -the two forces that shaped  all primitive languages in their infancy . 

If the Anglo-Saxons did not find it necessary to evolve separate  verb- forms to indicate future , they must have had reasons to do so  . I personally  think that the versatility   of their present tense verb- form was the reason . This verb-form was capable of being put  to diverse applications . It could be used to express actions that occurred in the past , which practice  survives today in historical present . It could express action in progress .It could express universal truths and habitual actions . Ii could express
future tense with suitable future time references,  a practice that survives , though in  a limited  way .No woderthe Anglo-Saxons did not see the need for a separate verb-form to express future! 

I wish to conclude this post by expressing the view of the great savant Otto Jespersen that the Anglo-Saxon language (Old English)) had enough internal resources to become a great language in future even if there was no Norman Conquest in 1066!

Thanking you for visiting 

Prof. V.P.Rafappan


Monday, May 14, 2012

English Subjunctive Mood--Is the Sun Setting on It ?

The term "subjunctive " refers to the form of verb used by a speaker when he says something contrary to fact  such as a wish, a possibility, a conjecture, a doubt and so on . Many English learners may not be aware of the existence of `these special verb forms . This is a hang-over from Old English period  when subjunctive verb forms were widely used . The AngloSaxons used one set of verb forms for expressing facts and another for expressing wishes , possibilities etc .They even put these forms to creative use as in reported speech when the reporter wanted to distance himself  from what he reported.All this changed during the Middle English period . Contact with French semi-auxiliaries led to the emergence of modal auxiliaries in English . The English language refined upon French auxiliaries  and put them to several uses . Thus English was no longer in need of special verb forms to express contrary-to -fact situations . The characteristic  subjunctive terminations -e and -en dropped out owing to changing stress patterns and thus subjunctive verb forms lost their identity .Scholars like Bradley and Fowler asserted that subjunctive mood would disappear from English sooner or later !

With the loss of their visual and aural identity and most of their functions being taken over by modal auxiliaries , the English subjunctive mood lost its  raison d'ĂȘtre , and it was firmly set on the road to extinction . But the amazing fact is that the subjunctive still survives  both in British and American English Let us examine the areas where the subjunctive survives in modern English.

1  While expressing orders , requests  recommendations etc the subjunctive mood , that is , special verb forms as distinct from those in indicative mood , is used in the that-clause in complex sentences .


a0He demands that everyone obey him

b) Our teacher recommends that everyone learn French .

c)I request that she be more kind to the children .

Note that indicative verb form with -s ending is avoided and this signals subjunctive mood

2 While expressing wishes desires etc subjunctive mood is widely used in English

a  I wish he were my son

b Would that I were young 1! Note the use of subjunctive verb form were in the place of indicative was

Subjunctive mood is used in set expressions  like

a God save the Queen!

b God be with nyou!

c God bless you.

d So be it .

e Till death do us part .

3 In conditional sentences expressing a hypothetical situation  subjunctive mood is still used

a If I were you , I wouldn't do it .

b If he were rich , she would marry him .

4 In unreal past (the use of past tense form of verbs for expressing contrary -to- fact situations)  the verb form used is really past subjunctive , though it is not distinguishable from past indicative . This is borne out by the use of were( , past subjunctive instead  of past indicative was in sentences expressing unreal past .

 If I stole her car , I would be jailed .

In this sentence stole is really past subjunctive of steal  , though it is indistinguishable from past indicative  But when it comes to the verb be ,  were (past subjunctive ) is the preferred form as in "If I were you , I wouldn't do it"

It is clear that subjunctive mood is in not likely  to go from the English language . It has come to stay ,. now overtly , now covertly ; now obviously , now subtly . It seems the sun will never set on it . English is slowly returning to its Germanic ancestry . It is a good sign .  It has no need to shine in Gallic feathers anymore! .The loss of subjunctive mood has  already taken its toll. English has become poorer for the loss of this mood . Look at the following quotations 

'I f Pope be not a poet , where is poetry to be found ?"Dr. Johnson

"That we  may bring , if need arise
no maimed or worthless sacrifice " ( Rudyard Kipling)

The use of subjunctive in these above quotes speaks for itself . Every user of English  must have wished to use a conditional sentence using subjunctive be   instead of the indicative is to express a certain shade of meaning .Dr Johnson uses  the subjunctive be and the indicative is/are to express different shades of meaning.   But  this option  is not available in present-day English.A language becomes poor when it becomes incapable of expressing  subtle shades of meaning . No wonder , English has ceded its place to French as the most accurate of modern languages ! .
Let us hope that  English will not allow   the subjunctive mood , or what  is left of it , to  perish !

Thank you for visiting

Prof V. P. Rajappan"