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Formal Asymmetries between Active and Passive Clauses in Modern English: The Avoidance of Preposition Stranding with Verbs Featuring Omissible Prepositions

Günter Rohdenburg
From the journal Anglia

Abstract

This paper reports on the results of a corpus-based study that deals with a hitherto neglected kind of formal asymmetry between active and passive clauses involving two-place prepositional verbs like agree. These contrasts are found in the context of two satisfied conditions:

a) The preposition in question is omissible, which holds for agree in present-day British English as in They agreed (on/upon/to/with) the proposal.

b) Unlike active uses, passivization of relevant prepositional options necessarily results in preposition stranding as in The proposal has been agreed on/upon/to/with.

It is shown that – in both passive and active clauses – stranded prepositions tend to be omitted more often than non-stranded ones. Unlike the passive, the active provides only a restricted range of contexts compatible with the potential use of stranded prepositions. What is more, these environments are relatively infrequent with most verbs. This is what largely explains the active-passive asymmetries with the verbs explored in this paper. Crucially, however, stranded prepositions can in several cases be demonstrated to be more strongly avoided in the passive than the active, thus mirroring their cross-linguistic distribution (see e. g. Maling and Zaenen 1985; Truswell 2009). The voice contrast is found to be independent of diachronic changes resulting in either the loss or the acquisition of the prepositions involved.

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Published Online: 2017-11-15
Published in Print: 2017-11-10

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