The active sentences (1a) and (2a) below can be passivized just like most English active clauses, resulting in (1b) and (2b):

1a. His candor struck me.

1b. I was struck by his candor.

2a. Her ideas impress me.

2b. I am impressed by her ideas.

But with the additions below, passivization becomes ungrammatical:

3a. His candor struck me as excessive.

3b. *I was struck by his candor as excessive.

4a. Her ideas impress me as farfetched.

4b. *I am impressed by her ideas as farfetched.

Why is this?

  • 1
    The elision of being can be done in active tense: "... as being excessive." In passive tense "being" is needed. – Joop Eggen Feb 10 '14 at 21:39
  • 2
    See Sportliche 1998: 185 for a possible explanation - he argues there could be two kinds of "strike" here, one with an external argument (passivization possible) or without an external argument (passivization impossible). The unpublished version is Sportliche 1990 ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/000020 (pp. 136-137 in the ms). – Alex B. Feb 10 '14 at 22:57
  • 2
    @AlexB., thanks for the link to Sportiche's paper. Another direction that is perhaps worth exploring is that the predicative phrase 'as excessive' cannot be predicated of 'his candor' when the latter appears inside the 'by'-PP. – Shai Cohen Feb 11 '14 at 8:03
  • 1
    @AlexB. Thanks for the link. I must agree I haven't read the whole thing, but just wondering why passivization is possible for e.g. "It took me by surprise" -> "I was taken by surprise". Is "by surprise" not an external argument here? – dainichi Feb 13 '14 at 1:30
  • 2
    I was struck by the excessiveness of his candor. The far fetchedness of her ideas impresses me. – Drew Feb 18 '14 at 5:36

There are several problems with the question:

Issue 1: The question assumes that passivization is actually a process that exists in language. It's carried over from the transformational heyday and feels so normal we might not even question it. But this is the context in which it should be questioned. In the constructional paradigm, this question does not come up because both passive and active as separate (if related) constructions, so you would not look at how one transforms the other. Instead, you would look at how each of these constructions could express similar meaning. And as several people pointed out that is very much possible.

  1. I was struck by his excessive candor (his excess of candor).
  2. I was impressed by how far fetched her ideas were.

Issue 2: You're focusing on the passive construction instead of the verb a noun as adjective construction. Something is clearly going on there with how it works.

Issue 3: Before you can deal with 2, you have to leave the realm of generalized syntax and focus on constructional semantics (Note: This is similar to the argument by Sportliche 1990 mentioned by Alex B. but without postulating new entities).

This would be best helped by some more real examples. I went to COCA and searched for .[v] .[p] as .[j]. This generated some more examples that suggested more of a context.

It would appear, the 'as something' only works when there is no force schema implied by the 'agent patient' relationship. For example, you have no problem with the passive equivalent as you can see in 3 and 4.

  1. They viewed me as excessive.
  2. I was viewed by them as excessive.

But you can even get the active construction to not work as in 5 or 6.

  1. *She struck him with a bat as excessive.
  2. *I impressed my seal into the wax as excessive.

You clearly have to use the metaphorical meanings of 'strike' and 'impress' where the force dynamics is suppressed. Here are some more corpus inspired examples.

  1. It struck me as a bit odd. / ?I was struck by this as a bit odd. / ? I was struck by this as a bit funny.
  2. She saw them as human. / They were seen (by her) as human.
  3. The police identified them as gang members. / They were identified by the police as gang members.
  4. They identified themselves as heterosexual. / *They were identified (by themselves) as heterosexual.

As you can see in the difference between 10 and 9. The AS construction can accept a more explicit agent-patient schema when dealing with a noun but the passive version somehow makes the schema too explicit with a property unless the verb itself suppresses the schema (as 'view' did in 4.)

There's probably more to the subtleties of the AS construction in different meanings but I hope I showed, that this is ultimately not about the passivization (should something like that even exist).

  • Thanks for this answer. I should say that I framed my question as being about "passivization" simply for brevity's sake, not to imply that the answer must come from a transformational framework (I believe even generative syntacticians these days don't necessarily see passive as a transformation of active). You're right that it's better viewed as a question about restrictions on semantically near-equivalent constructions. But I'm still not sure what the actual restrictions are. – TKR Oct 6 '14 at 15:03
  • I actually did not think you did expect a transformational answer, what I meant is that the legacy of transformations keeps us thinking in certain ways. And I think thinking about restrictions is a part of that legacy. Language is better viewed as something that positively generates meaningful expressions using an inventory of constructions. While it may be fruitful to think about the things that don't get said you, that is not because of restrictions but rather a lack of want. – Dominik Lukes Oct 6 '14 at 17:24
  • 1
    I think the answer here has to do with scenario/image schemas encoded by the AS construction. The AS positions both the agent and the action into a perspectival relationship with the 'object' of AS. A bit of Googling reveals that you can indeed say X was "struck down by the courts as excessive". Because here you can construct a perspectival relationship that fits the schema. It would require a lot more work to actually reconstruct the schema. Why the passive construction does not blend with the AS construction in this context is puzzling but I'd look for answers in this direction. – Dominik Lukes Oct 6 '14 at 17:36

The alternatives don't sound particularly ungrammatical to me but the issue is caused by disjoining the adjective. The sentences really are variants of "His excessive candor struck me." and "Her farfetched ideas impressed me."

Reintroducing the disjointed adjective makes them fine passives: "I was struck by his excessive candor." "I am impressed by her farfetched ideas."


[Revised version]

An interesting question! (with a relatively simple answer)

Within a Chomskian P&P framework, your puzzle can be explained as follows:

The adjectives excessive and farfetched are one-place predicates, assign a thematic role (presumably ‘Theme’, in traditional terminology), and, under the XP-Internal Subject Hypothesis, need arguments in their Spec A positions, which, in your examples 3a, 4a, apparently cannot but be the DPs his candour and her ideas, respectively. Hence, at the bottom of your grammatical sentences 3a and 4a, the structure is minimally [AP: [DP: his candour/her ideas] + [A': excessive/farfetched]]]. [I say ‘minimally’ because, for simplicity’s sake I will ignore here the fact that, arguably, the ‘Theme’ DPs are initially complements, not specifiers, of the adjective, which, strictly speaking, requires an AP with the structure [Spec A: ___ [A + Compl A]] and additional movement from Compl A to Spec A inside the AP, but we may leave that complication aside as it does not affect the gist of the argumentation that follows].

Concerning the nature of as, as Bowers cogently argued first in his important 1993 paper 'The Syntax of Predication' (LI 24.4, pp. 591-656), it acts as the 'functional' (= Pred) head of a Predication Phrase whose complements are APs (in this case), and whose specifier is initially empty (since Spec Pred is a non-thematic and Case-less position), although it must subsequently be filled by the ascending DPs his candour/her ideas, as they raise from their initial position inside AP to become 'subjects' of the Predication Phrase. Bottom-up, then, the second layer of structure in your 3a, 4a is, therefore, [PredP: [DP: his candour/her ideas] [Pred’: as + [AP: ‘trace/copy’ of his candour/her ideas [A’ excessive/far-fetched....]]]].

Since the Pred head as, however, has no Tense + Agreement feature complex and cannot 'check/license' either the agreement features or the nominative Case of its subject, it follows that the Case features that the DPs his candour and her ideas must contain (in virtue of the 'Case Filter') must be 'licensed' ('checked', 'assigned', etc.) by some external head (either a verb, in examples like They see/consider [me as a member of the family], or by a finite Tense head at the top of the sentence, as in your examples 3a and 4a. In the latter case, of course, those DPs must 'raise' stepwise (possibly across another argument, like the direct object me, in your examples 3a and 4a) from Spec A and Spec Pred into Spec V and eventually land in Spec T to get ('check', 'license') their nominative Case and validate their agreement features.

As to the VP layer above, although, in English, there are at least three homonymous verbs strike (same for impress), when strike/impress occur in constructions like your 3a and 4a they are similar in argument structure to intransitive ‘raising’ verbs like seem, appear (cf. Her ideas seemed to me farfetched, His candour seemed to me excessive). Of course, they differ from seem etc. in that they must select precisely as-headed PredPs, instead of the APs, DPs, PPs or infinitival clauses that seem etc. select and in that if seem takes an Experiencer it must be a PP (e.g., to me, above) instead of an object DP, but note that both ‘raising’ seem and strike, impress, etc. allow ‘dummy’ it subjects when they are followed by an associated finite CP complement (a that-clause, as in e.g. It seemed (to me) that she could have done it, It struck me that she could have done it). Non-raising verbs, on the contrary, strictly disallow ‘dummy’ it subjects, as expected.

Thus, assuming that the verbs strike, impress are, indeed, parallel in argument structure to raising verbs like seem or appear and cannot assign theta roles to their own specifiers (recall that they are compatible with ‘dummy’ it subjects), the DP subjects his candour, her ideas will gradually ascend from Spec A and Spec Pred through Spec V (V = struck, impress) into Spec T and, at the next layer upwards, the (simplified) structure of e.g. your 3a would be [His candour] [struck me [PredP: [‘trace’/’copy’ of his candour] [Pred’: as [AP (lower ‘trace’/’copy’ of his candour) [A’: excessive]]]].

Your examples 3a and 4a are well-formed and 'correct', in sum, because such derivations are coherent with all the P&P principles. Phonetically non-null DPs can only 'raise' from Spec Pred (eventually: as far as into Spec Tense) when the main verb that selects the as-headed Pred Phrase has no (future) 'subject' argument of its own, because otherwise a) the Spec V position will not be empty and available to temporarily lodge the ascending DP (here: his candour/her ideas) and 'minimality' (now, under MP: 'shortest movement') will be violated, b) if an ascending DP argument landed in Spec T, the verb's own DP argument sitting in Spec V (a thematic, but Case-less position) would not be allowed to also ascend into Spec T, its Case feature would not be licensed, and the Case Filter would be violated, and c) if the main verb assigned a theta role to a DP argument of its own in its Spec V and the 'ascending' DPs (his candour, her ideas, in your examples) somehow landed in that non-empty position, they would end up discharging two theta roles (one assigned by the adjectives excessive/farfetched, the other assigned by the main verbs strike/impress) and the Theta Criterion would also be violated. [Of course, they cannot possibly land in Spec V if that position is occupied by the verb’s higher argument and eventual subject]

Suppose now that, accepting that derivation, we tried to ‘passivize’ 3a. The result would be your 3b, with the (simplified) structure [I] was struck [PP: by + his candour] [PredP: (‘trace’/’copy’ of his candour) [Pred’: as [AP: (lower ‘trace’/’copy’ of his candour) [A’: excessive]]]], but, unfortunately, such a structure/construction violates a key principle of P&P grammar: 'traces' (/'copies') must be 'c-commanded' (and ‘bound’) by their antecedents. Note, however, that, if his candour is turned into the complement of the preposition by, it will no longer c-command* any of its traces. Recall the standard definition of ‘c-command’: A c-commands B if the first branching node C dominating A also dominates B; now, in the PPs by + his candour/her ideas, the only node that the DPs c-command is the P head by, because the first branching node above them is a P’ and, of course, P’ does not dominate the following PredP nor the traces left behind inside it by the ascending DPs]. As a consequence, the resulting passive sentence 3b is correctly predicted to be ungrammatical. The same applies to 4b, of course, if we try to make 4a passive.

But, is there no other derivation of 3b, 4b that can satisfy the principles of P&P and allow them to be grammatical? For example, what if we assume that strike/impress are parallel in argument structure, not to 'raising' verbs like seem, but to non-raising transitive psych verbs like frighten that do assign a Stimulus theta role to their subject and an Experiencer role to their object, as seems to happen in 1a or 2a? Under such an analysis, of course, His candour/Her ideas must be directly generated in Spec VP and raise into Spec T to check Case, etc., as they do in 1a and 2a. Correspondingly, if the construction is (made) passive, we must expect them to appear after the preposition by, as in 1b, 2b. As all four are grammatical, such examples raise no further issues.

The cases containing as Pred-Ps, like your 3a-b and 4a-b, however, are a completely different story: since the as Pred Phrases contain the one-place adjectival predicates excessive and farfetched and these, as stated above, assign a thematic role that must be satisfied by an AP-internal argument, P&P theory would predict them to be ungrammatical unless we claim that that indispensable argument is satisfied by a phonetically null category, but which? Of course, it cannot be a trace of His candour or Her ideas, for reasons already explained in paragraph 8 above, so the only alternative is a PRO controlled by the DP subjects.

Thus, under these alternative assumptions, the simplified structure of e.g. 3a would be [His candour] [struck me [PredP: PRO [Pred’: as [AP: trace/copy of PRO [excessive]]]]], which satisfies Theta Theory and solves the interpretation problem. Case-wise, such an analysis raises no problem, either: PRO can only receive Null Case (or, being phonetically empty, no Case at all, depending on which theory of PRO is adopted within P&P meta-theory), but, either way, it is fine in both Spec AP and Spec PredP. Movement-wise, PRO need not (and, in fact, by virtue of Economy, cannot), raise beyond Spec Pred (i.e., there must be PRO-raising from Spec A into Spec Pred, but there cannot be any subsequent PRO-raising from PredP into any higher specifier). Thus, in sum, claiming that the apparently missing argument of excessive or farfetched is a silent PRO solves the interpretation problem and causes no Case, Theta Criterion or Movement Theory violations, which accounts for the grammaticality of the ‘active’ sentences 3a and 4a.

The only crucial condition that PRO must satisfy is that it must be ‘controlled’ (and therefore c-commanded) by the subject DPs (his candour, her ideas, in this case), and that is where the fatal difference arises that makes the passive versions 3b and 4b ungrammatical: as soon as his candour/her ideas are construed as the complements of the preposition by (cf. I was struck/impressed [by + his candour/her ideas] as excessive/farfetched) they will no longer c-command the PRO subject of the following PredP, PRO will no longer be 'controlled' (= able to co-refer with its intended antecedent his candour/her ideas), it will therefore have to be interpreted as 'arbitrary in reference', and the resulting passive construction will become uninterpretable and ungrammatical.

In sum: no matter which of the preceding analyses of the argument-structure of the verbs strike and impress is adopted, P&P Theory straightforwardly predicts that passivization will not be possible in such constructions as your 3b and 4b. The reason is essentially the same in both cases: once the subject (or derived subject, if strike, impress, etc. are raising verbs) is construed as the complement of the preposition by, it can no longer c-command either its trace(s) – under the first analysis - or the associated PRO(s) – under the second one, the respective derivations violate Trace/Control Theory, and the resulting sentences are ill-formed. (In current ‘minimalist’ terms: they ‘crash’ at the C-I interface).

As promised above, then, your interesting question has a straightforward answer: granted P&P theory (or its subsequent minimalist versions), no stipulation is needed to explain why your 3b and 4b are impossible in English; their ill-formedness follows directly from general principles of the theory, as should always happen in science, including scientific linguistics.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.