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