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Predicting voice alternation across academic Englishes

Marianne Hundt, Melanie Röthlisberger and Elena Seoane


Academic writing in the second half of the twentieth century witnesses a notable decrease in be-passives in British and American English (AmE). This trend is more advanced in the soft than in the hard sciences; with the exception of AmE, moreover, regional variation is not highly significant. This paper aims to discover whether the use of passives is conditioned by the same factors across seven different varieties of English (both as a first and as an institutionalized second language). For this purpose, we automatically retrieve central be-passives and active transitives from syntactically annotated International Corpus of English corpora and code for factors that are likely to play a role in the choice between active and passive (such as the semantics of the participant roles or the length of the constituents). Our results show that, while the same factors predict the choice of a passive over an active verb phrase across first- and second-language varieties, subtle differences are found in the effect size that some factors (animacy, givenness and length of passive subject) have, notably in Hong Kong and Philippine English. Some (but not all) of these find an explanation in substrate influence.


This study builds on a previous investigation of voice alternation in ICE corpora. We would like to thank Gerold Schneider for his role in retrieving the original data set from the parsed corpora. This initial research was made possible by a travel grant (IZK0Z1_149005) from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) that enabled joint work on the project in August 2013. Additional funding was received from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (grants FFI FFI2014-53930-P and FFI2014-51873-REDT) and the Regional Government of Galicia (grant GPC2014/060). In Zürich, André Huber and Nina Benisowitsch helped with the first coding for contextual factors. We are also grateful for helpful discussions of a previous version of this paper with participants at the Leuven Workshop for Probabilistic Grammar.


ICE International Corpus of English

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Published Online: 2018-04-10
Published in Print: 2021-05-26

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