Rare passives develop a special use

NJL CoverBlog post written by Elisabet Engdahl based on an article in Nordic Journal of Linguistics

English and the mainland Scandinavian languages share a typologically rare feature: complements of prepositions can be promoted to subjects in so called prepositional passives, as in the often cited English example this bed has been slept in by George Washington. Several researchers have proposed that prepositional passives are restricted by a notion of affectedness; the passive verb phrase typically expresses a significant property, or a change in a significant property, of the subject-referent.

A detailed study of 3600 potential prepositional passives in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish reveals that affectedness is relevant also in these languages – but it is a different notion of affectedness. The prepositional passive subject is typically animate, a person or an animal, who is psychologically affected by the action, or the lack of action, expressed by the participle. The construction is commonly used with Scandinavian counterparts of predicates like laughed at, listened to and talked to and very rarely, if ever, with predicates like slept in or lived in.

Additional corpus investigations show that prepositional passives are quite infrequent; on average they are used 3 times per million words (mw) in Swedish, 5/mw in Danish and 16/mw in Norwegian texts and probably a bit more frequently in spoken language. We have not been able to find comparable frequency figures for English. Would a large scale study of the use of prepositional passives in English confirm the notion of affectedness described in the literature, i.e. as involving physical objects that acquire notoriety? Or are there more similarities in the use between English and Scandinavian than would be expected given the descriptions of these rare passives?

Access the full article ‘Prepositional passives in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish: A corpus study’ here

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