The Expression of Passive Sense in Non-Finite Forms in English and German *


John Partridge

University of Kent at Cantabury

(received November 1999)

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  1. The starting-point: the German sein + zu V-en infinitive and passive marking in English
  2. Exceptions and false exceptions: a derivational excursion
  3. The modal function of sein + zu + infinitives
  4. Markedness and squishiness in English potential passives
  5. The German lassen construction
  6. Selection and derivation
  7. Further perception problems: the potential passive in compounds nouns
  8. V-end and V-ing
  9. Agency, subjecthood and process
  10. Concluding remarks
  11. Bibliography

1. The starting-point: the German sein + zu V-en infinitive and passive marking in English

A well attested and standard bugbear for countless generations of English native speaker students of German has been that zu V-en preceded by a form of sein 1 has the capacity to express both active and passive sense2 through one morphological form, given of course that it is the infinitive of a transitive verb, whereas the English to-infinitive has to mark for passive sense with be plus the passive -ed or -able/ible morpheme:
(1a) Unser ehemaliger Premierminister vermag seine Prüfungsergebnisse nicht aufzuzählen
(1b) Our ex-Prime Minister is not able to add up his exam results
(2a) Ihre Angst war in ihren Augen klar zu erkennen
(2b) Her fear could be clearly seen in her eyes
(2c) Her fear was clearly visible in her eyes

This paper will examine this and similar phenomena in the expression of passive sense in the two languages.

2. Exceptions and false exceptions: a derivational excursion

There are very few exceptions to the above observation in English. Let (3) and (4) stand as archetypal examples of this highly restricted set.

(3) He is to blame
(4) This house is to let

Both of these might be regarded as petrified expressions or unitary lexical entries, though one might possibly think of deriving (3) from a structure such as X blame Y for Z and (4) from X let Y to Z or Z let Y from X. This derivational approach however presents pragmatic nd semantic problems: in the case of (3) saying that blame is attributable to someone is not the same as blaming them, and in the case of (4) the inherent ambiguities posed by the actor-beneficiary and beneficiary-source relationships 3 evidenced by the parallel letderivations, not helped either by for-to analysis, it is tempting to assume that as well as the above principled argumentation it is better for reasons of expediency to adopt a lexical approach which perhaps allows us to view (3) and (4) as paradigms of (5).

(5) Her chicken soup is to die for

This might be seen as non-standard: a now fossilised import into some variants of American English, probably derived from German via Yiddish.

Existential sentences do not counteract this argument:

(6) There was nothing to see
(7) There was nothing to be seen

These sentences show firstly different senses of see - [perceive something of note] and [allow to impinge on the visual cortex] and secondly do not allow indexical expressions to appear as subject: indeed they would no longer be existential. (8) and (9) instantly revert to standard, although no longer conforming to the nothing pattern. On the other hand (10) does appear at first sight to vitiate the point.

(8) *Fred was not to see
(9) Fred was not to be seen
(10) Fred was nothing to write home about

However, if we look at quantified to + Vinf expressions, such as in (11), a semantic argument emerges: to + Vinf expressions with active form but passive sense might be said to entail positive implication, whereas (12) appears to exhibit either no implicative presupposition at all, or to tend to the negative). Further, (13) is more accessible to basic for-to analysis and thus more flexible for agent insertion on pragmatic grounds.

(11) There was a lot to do in the cottage (and we did it)
(12) There was a lot to be done in the cottage (so we didn't buy it)
(13) There was a lot for us/me/... to do

Whilst these arguments are not overwhelming, they take us far enough away from the central point at issue to be put on one side, for the moment at least.

(5) seems to make some interesting predictions. Could it be the case that if things can be died for, at this is on the same basis that they can be paid for, thus that die for is a phrasal verb like pay for and can be passivised in the same way as the German bezahlen, or that dieis denotative of an activity perceived as passivisable and occurring linguistically in the environment of a prepositional phrase? There are examples in German of impersonal passives:

(14a) Heute wird getanzt
(14b) There is/will be dancing today
(15a) Hier darf nicht geraucht werden
(15b) Smoking is not allowed here
(16a) Jetzt wird gefeiert
(16b) Now there is/will be some celebrating

Arguably such verbs as tanzen, rauchen and feiern can and indeed do in the active have a direct object, possibly directly cognate or implicative, and are thus passivisable: for example einen Tanz tanzen "to dance a dance", eine Zigarre/Zigarette/Pfeife rauchen, "to smoke a cigar/cigarette/pipe", eine Feier / einen Geburtstag feiern "to celebrate a festival/birthday", whereas here we are faced with a problem. Is the process designated by die transitive?

In English there is no objection to (17a), but (17b) is scarcely acceptable, and its German equivalent (17c) is even worse. (14a), (15a) and (16a) as they stand are agentless, referring to the process rather than its protagonists, but would allow a human agent, but if anything the already highly questionable acceptability of(17b) and (17c) is even further reduced when the agent is deleted.

(17a) My father died a painful death
(17b) #A painful death was died (by my father)
(17c) #Ein schmerzhafter Tod wurde (von meinem Vater) gestorben

The converse, living, seems less controversial. There is apparently nothing wrong with (18a) or (21a), where both the middle sich lassen systematically and the verb leben perhaps idiomatically can be seen to render passive sense.

(18a) Dort wird vielleicht wüst gelebt
(18b) There's some pretty wild living going on there
(19a) Im Salzkammergut läßt es sich gut leben
(19b) There's good living in the Salzkammergut

At this stage we complete the loop: the structural derivation in of such directly-derived full German deverbal nouns as Kotzen (to vomit) in (20a) and Sterben (to die) in (21a) becomes apparent: die for, initially perceived to be potentially transitive, shows up as a false exception, accessible by a diverse route to for-to analysis.

(20a) Das ist ja zum Kotzen
(20b) It's enough to make you sick
(21a) Sie ist zum Sterben schön
(21b)She is beautiful enough (for one) to die for (her)

However misderivation, whilst throwing up a number of speculations, does not solve the problems encountered with the other English counter-examples to be to blame and to be to let.

Generally, though it has the capacity to do so, German does not even use a verb-based predicate structure to render (22a):

(22a) He is to blame
(22b) Er ist (daran) schuld /er soll (dafür) getadelt/beschuldigt werden) 4,
(22c) He is guilty of it/he should be admonished for it/declared guiltyof it

German will cheerfully render (23a) with the zu-infinitive, parallelled by its French equivalent (23c):

(23a) This house is to let
(23b) Dieses Haus ist zu vermieten
(23c) Cette maison est à louer

However, unlike above, it is not possible to bring for-to analysis to bear unless by a very tortuous and elliptical, thus highly suspect, route. Whilst other apparent exceptions may be accounted for by extraposition and deletion transformations, (22a) and (23a) must be seen as true exceptions.

3. The modal function of sein + zu + infinitive

The use of sein + zu + infinitive to express potential and necessity or purpose is attested in the Duden-Grammatik:
"Die Tür ist (von Hans) zu öffnen (= Die Tür kann/muß/soll [von Hans] geöffnet werden.)
Der Schmerz ist kaum zu ertragen ( = Der Schmerz kann kaum ertragen werden.)

Wie die Beispiele zeigen, entspricht die Konstruktion im allgemeinen einem mit einem Modalverb umschriebenen Passiv." (DG 84, para 304 p185)

Durrell (1996, 306) notes similarly that "The infinitive with zu with some semi-auxiliary verbs has the force of a passive. Depending on the verb, this construction expresses possibility, obligation or necessity, i.e. it has the sense of können, müssen or sollen followed by a passive infinitive.

Die Anträge sind im Rathaus abzuholen
(= Die Anträge können / müssen im Rathaus abgeholt werden)
The applications may/must be collected from the town-hall/are to be collected from the town-hall
Diese Frage ist noch zu erörtern
(= Diese Frage muß noch erörtert werden)
This question must still be discussed/is still to be discussed
Dieser Text ist bis morgen zu übersetzen (= Dieser Text muß / soll bis morgen übersetzt werden) This text must be translated by tomorrow/is to be translated by tomorrow

Possibly the most insightful and comprehensive portrayal is that of Helbig & Buscha (1988: 131):

sein + Infinitiv mit zu (= Möglichkeit, Notwendigkeit)

Die Arbeit ist in 3 Tagen kaum zu schaffen. (= Die Arbeit kann in 3 Tagen kaum geschafft werden)
Die Arbeit ist unbedingt in einer Woche zu erledigen (= Die Arbeit muß unbedingt in einer Woche erledigt werden)

sein + Infinitiv bedeutet öfter eine Möglichkeit, manchmal auch eine Notwendigkeit (z.B. in Vorschriften). Welche Bedeutung im konkreten Satz gegeben ist, wird jedoch nur aus dem Kontext (in den obigen Beispielen durch kaum bzw. unbedingt) deutlich. Im Gegensatz zu den haben-Verbindungen sind die sein-Verbindungen passivisch, das mit von anzuschließende Agens der Handlung fehlt häufig.

Beedham (1981, 320) characterises the passive as "the portrayal simultaneously of an event and the state which results from that event". In the cases seen above, we must see both state and event as yet unrealised and lacking an agent. Such occurrences of the passive, and their derivatives, will hereafter be referred to as potential passives.

The problems encountered by Lees (1960, 1970) or less so Brekle (1970) in examining English compounds, and the trials of deep-case grammarians (e.g. Fillmore (1968, 1971, 1977) in trying to define systematic and predictable watertight case categories demonstrate the danger of extrapolating from paraphrase derivations, with the arbitrary judgements that can be involved (see below pp. 12-13 for discussion on potential passives in nominal compounds). However, there seems to be a strong case for positing a zu-infinitive potential passive verb - adjective - noun squish in German (cf. Ross 1972), with an intermediate stage engendering something like the Latin gerundive, the zu V-end adjective, to which it is morphologically remarkably similar 5, as (24a-d) show.

(24a) Amanda amanda est
(24b) Amanda is to be loved
(24c) Amanda ist eine sehr zu lobende Frau
(24d) Amanda is a very laudable woman

The 1984 Duden-Grammatik precisely outlines the nature of the phenomenon, but does not go deeper into the tangled semantic problem of derivation: "Als transformationelle Variante der sein-Konstruktion ist das attributive Gerundivum zu betrachten (die zu öffnende Tür = die Tür, die zu öffnen ist = die Tür, die man öffnen kann/muß/soll)." (DG 1984:185, para 304, fn2)

"Dem 1. Partizip [(Präsenspartizip oder 1. Mittelwort)] gleich gebildet ist die Form zu billigend, zu fürchtend. Sie entspricht dem lateinischen Gerundiv[um] und wird in der Standardsprache ziemlich häufig, in der Dichtung und in der Umgangssprache kaum verwendet:

Das ist ein nicht zu billigender Schritt. Sein anzuerkennender Fleiß ... "Sie hat passivische Bedeutung: mit ihr wird eine Notwendigkeit oder Möglichkeit ausgedrückt. Sie kann nur von transitiven Verben gebildet werden und wird nur attributiv gebraucht." (DG 1984:192, para 316)

Durrell, too, notes that "present participles can be used adjectivally with an accompanying zu e.g. das abzufertigende Gepäck "the baggage for checking" This is an adjectival form of the construction with sein and an infinitive with zu expressing possibility or necessity. As in that construction the participle has passive force:
ein nicht zu übersehender Fehler A mistake which cannot be overlooked ihre anzuerkennende Leistung her achievement[,] which must be acknowledged ein Auszubildender a trainee
"As the last example [above] shows, these forms, too, can be used as nouns. This construction is common in official written registers, but is rare in informal speech." (Durrell 1996: 272)

This tendency is manifest in the relative clause-derived pre-nominal erweiterter Adjektivsatz, and retained into the regular deadjectival noun - Ross' Endstation Hauptwort (Ross 1972).6

We thus see a developmental derivation from the infinitive to the deverbal deadjectival noun, as detailed below:

The German Squish

[+Verb] [+ infinitive] [+ transitive] [+/- active, +/- passive]

Infinitive phrase
(+ [+Adverb]) zu + [+Verb] [+ infinitive] [+ transitive] [+/-active, +/- passive]
zu + erkennen

Predicate/verb phrase
sein(+ [+Adverb]) + zu + [+Verb] [+ infinitive] [+ transitive] [- active, + passive]
ist + zu +erkennen

[At this stage the active option has been (irretrievably) deselected.]

Extended adjective phrase
[+det](+ [+Adverb]) + zu + [+Adjective [+Verb] [+ infinitive] [+ transitive] [+ gerundive] [- active, + passive] + ending] + noun
die + in ihren Augen + klar + zu + erkennen + d + e + Angst
Deadjectival deverbal noun
[+det] [+ neuter] +(+ [+Adverb]) [+ Noun + zu + [+cap] [+Adjective [+Verb] [+ infinitive] [+ transitive] [- active, + passive] + ending]]
das + klar + zu + Erkennende

The whole derivation has taken place through the initial selection of a predicative structure with a transitive verb, and selection of zu is then determinant of passive sense selection. It hardly needs to be said that the selection of an attributive structure with a transitive verb will fail, in that incorrect semantic readings - i.e. active instead of passive sense - will be ascribed to the verbal element. Selection of an intransitive verb with predicative structure will result in oddities from the beginning, as shown by (25a).

(25a) *Er ist zu kommen

The jussive sense of sollen/müssen is rendered in the zu-infinitive in such cases by haben:

(25b) Er hat zu kommen

English on the other hand seems fairly lax on this score. There are of course pragmatic differences between (25c) and (25d).

(25c) He is to come
(25d) He has to come

However, their basic deontic functionality appears quite similar, though (25d) is more markedly, but not canonically, epistemic: in (25c) it has been appointed by some authority that he shall come, whereas in (25d) either circumstances demand that he come or it is logically unthinkable that he will not come.

In (26a) selection of an attributive zu + infinitive-derived structure with an intransitive verb apparently poses no syntactic problems, though this directly contradicts the DG's stricture that such forms are restricted to transitives:

(26a) Die noch zu Kommenden werden sich über unsere Errungenschaften bestimmt freuen
(26b) Those yet to come will certainly be pleased with our achievements

Semantically, however, we do appear to be confronted with a problem, as discussion has so far posited passive sense for zu V-end deverbal adjectives. I shall postpone discussion of this apparent stumbling-block to a later stage of the paper.

Markedness and squishiness in English potential passives~

Interestingly, English adopts a diametrically opposite position. The existence in English of two present-tense paradigms, the simple and continuous, as opposed to the one German present tense form, which has to carry continuous, iterative and "hot news" senses, would perhaps imply that there are more morphological mechanisms available in English to express passiveness than in German. Certainly we find that the English to-infinitive is far less flexible syntactically, semantically and functionally than its German counterpart.

We have already noted that apart from the examples quoted at the beginning of this paper there are very few cases of the English simple to-infinitive bearing passive sense. Thus while German uses the bifunctional transitive zu-infinitive with sein and also has a "proper" periphrastic passive infinitive form - werden + past participle for the Vorgangspassiv and sein + past participle for the Zustandspassiv, English is obliged to select the explicit to be + past participle infinitive at the earliest stage if it wants to convey potential passive sense in the infinitive. Similarly, if it is necessary to convey continuous aspect, the explicit form must be selected.

We thus see the pattern for the passive infinitive (but please note that English phase and aspect markers (cf. for example Comrie (1976)) are not exemplified here):

The English non-Squish

Infinitive phrase:
to + be + [[+Verb] [+ transitive] [- active, + passive] [+ past participle]]
to + be + recognised

[Even at this initial stage no active option is available, but aspect and phase options are overtly available] Predicate/verb phrase (for modificatory function incorporated in a relative clause):
(have -en) (+be -ing) + be (+ [+Adverb]) + [[+Verb] [+transitive] [- active, + passive] [+ past participle]]
is/can be + clearly + recognised

[The position of the optional adverb is of course variable, and plays no further part in this study. Aspect and phase options are still available, as also below.] Postposed infinitive phrase, derived from relative clause:
to (+ have -en) (+be -ing) + be (+ [+Adverb]) + [[+Verb] [+ transitive] [- active, + passive] [+ past participle]]
to + be + clearly + recognised

[The relative clause cannot by the rules of English jump to precede the noun, and modification can take place only by appending the postposed infinitive phrase to the nominal antecedent, which not infrequently will be premodified by a limiting expression, such as the first/only.] Deverbal phrasal noun:
[+wh-] [+ neuter] + be + to (+ have -en) (+be -ing) + be (+ [+Adverb]) + [[+Verb] [+ transitive] [- active, + passive] [+ past participle]]
what/that which + is +to be + clearly + recognised

[Quite clearly, while the nominalised form of the German erweiterter Adjektivsatz is generally regarded as stylistically ugly and tends to be restricted to officialese, it is quite compact. To follow the same derivational path as German is for English something of an arcane monstrosity, and results in a construction which is grammatically and semantically acceptable, but definitely not squishy, but is indeed used - for the purpose of foregrounding a rheme, however.]

The whole derivation has been restricted by the obligatory and determinant selection of an explicit passive infinitive structure with a transitive verb.

As in German, the selection of an attributive structure with a transitive verb will fail, but in this case not on a specifically semantic, rather on the straight syntactic level if postposition is not observed. The selection of to + infinitive of an intransitive verb with predicative structure seems unproblematical, any passive reading being impossible, as (34) and (35) show.

(27) The best is yet to come
(28) The shape of things to come

5. The German lassen construction

Remaining with the simple infinitive, rendering the German causative configuration infinitive + lassen is another hurdle for English native speakers, who frequently fail to read the infinitive transitive verb as a passive, and interpret lassen as let, not always a categorically unacceptable interpretation, but one which may be contextually ambiguous between active and passive, causative or permissive at times, as in (29a-d). The problem seems unlikely to occur in reverse.

(29a) Er ließ seine Frau erwürgen
(29b) He had his wife strangled
(29c) He let his wife be strangled
(29d)?He made/let his wife strangle
(29e) Er ließ seine Frau den Hamster erschießen
(29f) He made/let his wife strangle the hamster
(29g) Er ließ seine Frau kommen
(29h) Er ließ es zu, dass seine Frau erwürgtwurde
(29i) ?Er ließ seine Frau erwürgt werden

(29a) is surely more likely to attract the causative interpretation rather than the somewhat casual permissive reading (29c). On the other hand (29d), whilst still perhaps (just) within the realms of grammaticality, is frankly unacceptable as a version of the German original. In the case of a full verb phrase where full valency is employed, the passive interpretation will be blocked, as in (29e), although there might be some marginal ambiguity as to the causative/permissive interpretation of lassen7. The related separable verb zulassen ("to allow") is incontrovertibly permissive and will not permit a causative interpretation: (29h) will incontestably render (29c), but German native speaker informants were unable either to vouch for the acceptability of (29i) or to ascribe a meaning to it, certainly not as a rendering of (29b). In the case of an intransitive there is no question of a passive interpretation, though there might be ambiguity: (29f) could for example indicate causation or complicity in his wife's presence.

Interestingly, however, we note that the German infinitive in causative lassen constructions is rendered in English by a form which in itself, without the trappings of the explicitly passive to be + past participle construction is not marked for passive or active: regard the following interaction:

(30) "Strangled? Who has/did?" - "No, she was."

There is nothing particularly exciting about this: past participles are like that -- it is clear what is meant, and the context will assign the appropriate sense.

Gehören + past participleand deserve/need/want + V-ing: variation and selection

The foregoing provides a link to a situation in which it seems that German is more explicit in its marking than English, or that English is displaying more ambivalent tendencies: the case of a subjective judgment that a particular state should obtain - the potential passive - expressed through German gehören + past participle and English deserve/need/want + V-ing.Incidentally, whilst this observation adds fuel to the fire of Hawkins' typological claim (Hawkins 1986) that German is semantically more transparent in its structures than English, the claim is not supported by the bi-functionality of the zu-infinitive which originally sparked the current discussion.

When the English -ing form occurs categorially as a gerund, it is as potentially ambiguous as the German zu-infinitive between active and passive interpretations:

(31) That child needs/wants spanking
(32) That Member of Parliament needs/wants/likes spanking
(33) That man needs/wants/deserves locking up

Of these three examples (31) and (33) will typically, but not canonically, have passive sense ascribed to the -ing form, while (32), particularly when like is selected, points up, though again not canonically, the active-passive ambiguity. While convention has its part to play in assigning passive sense, there is no reason why active sense should not equally apply.

It must of course be pointed out that there is social and dialectal variation here: need and deserve + passive V-ing are more deeply embedded in the standard language, whilst want + passive V-ing, particularly vis-à-vis need + passive V-ing, is to some extent regarded as a substandard colloquial or regional variant, though the -ing form has long been regarded as endowing a more concrete sense than the infinitive (cf. Kiparsky and Kiparsky's (1970) treatment of factivity), as is also implied in Durrell's example and translation, quoted above: das abzufertigende Gepäck "the baggage for checking",i.e. "the-to-be-checked-baggage."

Regional variation, in British English and at least one version of American English, provides further interesting insights. Some forms of Northern, Irish, Scottish and, I am reliably informed, Ohio English, for example, will select the past participle as opposed to the gerund with need/want as in (34), heard on a live BBC4 Sunday Service broadcast in autumn 1994. (This is general in Northumberland - Ed.) I have no evidence or intuition regarding dialectal deserve.

(34) The grass needs/wants cut, the weeds need/want pulled ...

This ambivalence does not obtain in German, which for this purpose selects the non-finite form, the uninflected past participle of a transitive verb for the German equivalent of (35a): or uses the full passive configuration as in (36a) and (36b):

(35a) The fellow deserves locking up
(35b) Der Kerl gehört eingesperrt
(36a) Der Kerl müsste eingesperrt werden
(36b) The fellow ought to be locked up
(37a) Der Kerl verdient eingesperrt zu werden
(37b) The fellow deserves to be locked up

6. Selection and derivation

The selectional and derivational procedures in the two languages can be formally summarised thus:


Select need/deserve/want: - to be V-ed - deselect active
OR: - V-ing - active/passive open, context to determine modal should/ought to: - V - select active OR: - be V-ed - deselect active

[want regional/colloquial or sometimes regarded as substandard]


Select gehören:-Vpast participle ( + werden, to be obligatorily deleted?) - deselect active modal sollte/müsste : - Vinf - select active
OR: - geV-t werden - deselect active

[gehören regional/colloquial or sometimes regarded as substandard]

It would thus appear that in this case German is tending to pre-deselect the option of any non-passive interpretation unless the modal option is taken, in which case it behaves in a similar manner to English.

7. Further perception problems: the potential passive in compound nouns

Tangentially, similar active/passive opacity manifests itself in compound nouns. Interestingly, though it is not safe to generalise from paraphrase derivations in nominal compounds (cf. Lees (1960) and remarks above, p.5), in which the semantic relations obtaining between the components is notoriously arbitrary, a similar reflection emerges in some cookery terms, as in (38a) (36b)

(38a) Bratwurst, (eine Wurst, die gebraten wird)
(38b) Bratwurst,(a sausage which is roasted)
(39a) Brühwurst (eine Wurst, die gebrüht wird)
(39b) Brühwurst, (a sausage which is boiled)
(40a) Knackwurst (eine Wurst, die knackt)
(40b) Knackwurst (a sausage which goes bang)

And as for Blutwurst (blood + sausage) and Leberwurst (liver + sausage)...

English offers us, for example, rather blandly analysed (41a-43a), whereas in fact the relation is much closer, as shown in (41b-34b)

(41a) slicing tomato -a tomato for slicing
(42a) cooking apples -apples for cooking
(43a) braising steak -steak for braising
(41b) the tomato is sliced
(42b) the apples are cooked
(43b) the steak is braised

There is a regularity here which is different from that observable in some instrumentally-based compounds, as in (44a-46c)

(44a) ein Kochmesser
(44b) a cooking knife
(45a) Lehrmittel
(45b) teaching aids
(46a) pickling vinegar
(46b) Essig zum Einlegen
(46c) ?Einlegeessig

The knife is use for the purposes of cooking, but it is not cooked, nor does it do the cooking. Teaching is done, but the aids are not taught, nor do they teach, rather they are the means of that teaching. The vinegar is used for pickling, but is not pickled. Whilst we do find potential passives in nominal compounds, neither systematic semantics nor morphology will help us to predict interpretations, and we must rely on real-world knowledge.

8. V-end and V-ing

As noted above, the German V-end form occurs with true verbal function only attributively, whether as present participle or as gerundive. The directly deverbal German gerund is identical in form, apart from specifier and capitalisation, to the infinitive. The English gerund and present participle are morphologically identical, but as shown English lacks a morphological gerundive, and can at best make up with a rather labyrinthine paraphrase transliteration 8. The gerund in both English and German may be freely used as subject, object or complement.

The German present participle occurs in attributive adjectival guise only. When apparently used predicatively it is in fact a petrified adjectival form and has no participial function:

(54a) Sein Benehmen war einfach ätzend
(54b) His behaviour was simply foul (lit. corrosive)
(54c) *Die Säure ist einfach das Metall ätzend
(55a) Amanda ist einfach reizend/verlockend
(55b) Amanda is simply charming
(56a) Amanda is simply charming a senior member of government into indiscretion
(56b) *Amanda ist einfach ein höheres Regierungsmitglied reizend/verlockend

This of course is a categorial matter, but it does, maybe needlessly, illustrate that the English -ing form is functionally far more flexible than the uninflected German -end. Interestingly whilst ergative forms still abound, as in (57).

(57) The tea's brewing

I have been unable to replicate in current-day English (58a), the expression of passive sense -ing form in its guise as the English present participle in the time of Jane Austen: though it will nominalise unproblematically, if stylistically infelicitously, to (58b), parallelled equally if not more infelicitously by the German (58c), but fully acceptably by (58d), English version (58e): explicitness, it would appear, varies across the linguistic divide, and is not uni-directional.

(58a) Your supper's preparing
(58b) Your supper's in preparation
(58c) ?Dein Abendessen ist in Vorbereitung
(58d) Unsere neue Webseite ist in Vorbereitung
(58e) Our newweb-site is in preparation

9. Agency, subjecthood and process

Can one apply systematic criteria to verbs which allow of the above analyses? As the examples indicate the transitivity/intransitivity active/passive metric is not wholly waterproof. It appears best to concentrate on the verbal process, not as part of a semantic inventory, but in communicative terms. In terms of valency it is fair to point out that the agent, for pragmatic reasons if for no other, is optional, whilst the patient/recipient is obligatory. Other exponents are facultative. Aspectually we may point to process and event, with all that those involve, primarily progressive and perfective. In the constructions, not however within the verb, we can find deontic and epistemic modal function (necessity, purpose, possibility, futurity).

Durrell notes that "[t]he werden-passive can be used without a subject to denote an activity in general [...] The agent is unspecified, so that there is no indication of who is performing the action. [...] A subjectless passive can be formed from any verb which expresses an activity by an agent, whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. [...] This construction thus forms a notable exception to the general rule that the passive is restricted to transitive verbs" (Durrell 1996:297)

Not only werden-passives of intransitives but also zu V-end deverbal adjectives derived from intransitives show similar behaviour, as was noted previously. See example (59):

(59) Die noch zu Kommenden werden sich über unsere Errungenschaften bestimmt freuen

It has been pointed out at various stages that nonfinite, or potential, passives have a modal function. In discussion (FGLS, UMIST 1994) Schlobinski pointed out that examples (14-16) of potential passives derived from intransitives have an essentially jussive/hortative/authoritative function, as in (60-62).

(60) Heute wird getanzt
(61) Hier darf nicht geraucht werden
(62) Jetzt wird gefeiert

However, this is a red herring. If these examples are put into the past tense this function disappears, as in (63a-65b)

(63a) Gestern wurde getanzt
(63b) There was dancing yesterday
(64a) Dort durfte nicht geraucht werden
(64b) There was no smoking allowed there
(65a) Dann wurde gefeiert
(65b) Then there was some celebrating

This was perhaps more a question of examples whose utterance context is conventionally prescribed and to that extent misleading: what is really at stake is the rhematic consideration. It is the process which is under scrutiny: assertive and non-assertive illocutionary function, agency and subjecthood are matters of indifference.

This has to be the answer to the problem raised earlier, of not only the werden-passive of intransitives but also zu V-end deverbal adjectives derived from intransitives showing similar behaviour, as noted in (66).

(66) Die noch zu Kommenden werden sich über unsere Errungenschaften bestimmt freuen
the still to come-ones will themselves over our achievements certainly cheer

While (66) must to be all intents and purposes a one-off, in sein zu +V-en structures and their derivatives we are looking at future oriented potential activities rather than their exponents: in the thematic phrase here the activity is rhematised, true to the nature of the construction.

10. Concluding remarks

This paper has tried to give a brief but reasoned comparative and contrastive survey of passive expression in some non-finite structures in English and German. The data are wide and disparate, and range from the original verbal starting point over the nominal and adjectival categories, too. Saliently we see certain features emerging: a concentration on process rather than exponent, and a relationship between transparency and opacity in form and function which is far from constant, with divergent patterns of systematicity and inconsistency in both languages. To that extent the Hawkins hypothesis is neither proved nor disproved, but is shown, in a weak form at any rate, to have some cogency.

11. Bibliography

Beedham, C. 1981. 'The Passive in English, German and Russian'. In: Journal of Linguistics 17, 19-327.

Beedham, C. 1995. German linguistics: an introduction. München: iudicium.

Behaghel, O. 1923. Deutsche Syntax. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Bierwisch, M. & Heidolph, K.E. (eds.). 1970. Progress in Linguistics. Den Haag: Mouton.

Brekle, H.E. 1970. Generative Satxsemantik und Transformationelle Syntax im System der englischen Nominalkomposition. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Drosdowski, G. et al. (eds). 1984. Duden Grammatik der deutschen Gegenwartsprache. Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut.

Durrell, M. 1996. Hammer's German Grammar and Usage. 3rd edition. London: Edward Arnold.

Fillmore, C.J. 1968. 'The case for case'. In: Bach, E. and Harms, R.T. (eds.) Universals in Linguistic Theory. New York: HRW. 1-88.

Fillmore, C.J. 1971. 'Some problems for case grammar'. In: O'Brien, R.J. (ed.) Report of the 22nd Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Studies. Washington: Georgetown UP. 35-56.

Fillmore, C.J. 1977. 'The case for case reopened'. In: Cole, P. & Sadock, J.M. (eds.) Syntax and Semantics, Vol.8. New York: Academic Press. 59-81.

Fischer, K. 1997. German-English Verb Valency: A Contrastive Analysis. Tübingen: Gunther Narr..

Halliday, M.A.K. 1976. System and Function in Language. Selected papers edited by Gunther Kress. Oxford: OUP.

Hawkins, J.A. 1986. A Comparative Typology of English and German: Unifying the Contrasts. University of Texas.

Helbig, G., & J. Buscha. 1988. Deutsche Grammatik. Leipzig: VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie.

Hoeing, R.G. 1994. 'Empty, Expletive and Missing Subjects in German'. In: Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics Vol. 11. Frankfurt, Bern, New York: Peter Lang.

Keller, R.E. 1978. The German Language. London: Faber and Faber.

Kiparsky, C. & Kiparsky, P. 1970. 'Fact' in: Bierwisch & Heidolph (eds.), 345-299.

Lees, R.B. 1960. The Grammar of English Nominalizations. Den Haag: Mouton.

Lees, R.B. 1970. 'Problems in the Grammatical Analysis of English Nominal Compounds'. In: Bierwisch & Heidolph (eds.), 174-186.

Partridge, J.G. 1982. Semantic, Pragmatic and Syntactic Correlates: an Analysis of Performative Verbs, based on English Data. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

Priebsch, R. and Collinson, W. 1966. The German Language. 6th edition. London: Faber and Faber.

Ross, J.R. 1972. 'The category squish: Endstation Hauptwort'. In: Peranteau, P.M., Levi, J.M. and Phares, G. (eds.). Papers from the Eighth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago. 316-328.


*. This paper is dedicated to my younger son Alexander and to the memory of my father, Clifford William Partridge, and all victims of the pernicious Motor Neurone Disease.

I am indebted to Dr. Chris Beedham of the University of St. Andrews, Prof. Peter Schlobinski, then of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, members of the FB Neuere Fremdsprachen, Philipps-Universität Marburg and of the Sektion für Anglistik of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, and participants at GLAC4, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 1998, for their helpful and constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper. Back to text

[1] The Duden-Grammatik also comments (DG, para 304, p.185, fn1) on the (admittedly less frequent) occurrence of the zu- passive infinitive with bleiben, geben (though I question the accuracy of the derivation - see comment below on existential sentences) stehen and the colloquial gehen. [back to text]

2. The term sense is deliberately used so as to avoid any confusion with the morphological forms for passive voice, i.e werden/sein + past participle in German and be + past participle in English: i.e. there is no overt correlation between grammatical form and meaning. Back to text

3. Beedham (1995, 68) suggests that the idea of passive, which he feels is inappropriate for anything but marked werden/sein + past participle structures, might be better handled by the Hallidayan concept of receptive (Halliday 1976, 161-2). This suggestion seems apposite here, but does not alter the substance of the discussion. Back to text

4. This lexical divergence further highlights the problem raised by the non-synonymy of actually attributing blame and saying that blame is attributable (see Partridge 1982).Back to text

5. Keller (1978: 440) dates this as occurring in the Early New High German period. It seems fairly obviously to derive from a classical overlay. Priebsch and Collinson (1966: 337) rather querulously deplore the construction: AStill less German in spirit [than the attributive use in post-nominal position of the present participle] is the placing of the present participle with all its appurtenances in front of the substantive@ . Quoting Behaghel (1923), they derive it from the dative infinitive, and attribute it to a Latin influence, which can only have been engendered in a cultured Latinate Oberschicht, rather than from an original vernacular, as it is observed to be a manifestation of Schriftsprache. Interestingly, however, their apparently transformationally derived squishy approach to the phenomenon (see later) is not followed through. Back to text

6.Whilst Ross synchronically adopts a linear and explicitly terminal metaphor, seen diachronically the metaphor changes and we can see a full circle being completed, the infinitive having been derived from an old I.E. abstract substantive and zu having prepositional function (Priebsch/Collinson 1966: 338). Back to text

7. Osman Durrani (personal communication) points out that not only the causative but also the permissive sense of lassen is parallelled in what might be regarded as the archaic/biblical use (Authorised Version) of the English suffer, as in:

Suffer little children to come unto me (Luke 18, 16)
suffer us to go away into the herd of swine (Matthew 9, 31)
Back to text

8. This is not strictly true: expressions of the type (i) will lead squishily to(ii) and thence to (iii):

(i) This is an experience which can never be forgotten
(ii) This is an experience never to be forgotten
(iii) This is a never-to-be-forgotten experience

However, it still has to be noted that English has to select the passive-marked past participle, whilst the German -end suffix is systematically semantically bi-functional.Back to text

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