Cross-Germanic Promotion to Subject in Ditransitive Passives – a Feature-Driven Account

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Languages differ with respect to which element they select as the subject in passive of ditransitive verbs: either the active indirect object (the goal argument) or the active direct object (the theme argument). In standard American English, e.g., only the goal argument may be promoted, as shown by the difference between (1b) and (1c).

(1) a. John gave Mary a red bike yesterday.
b. Mary was given a red bike yesterday.
c. *The red bike was given Mary yesterday

German, on the other hand, only allows the theme arguement to be promoted:

(2) a. Eine größere Wohnung wurde ihm versprochen.
a larger flat was him promised
He was promised a larger flat.
b. *Er wurde eine grössere Wohnung versprochen.

Swedish, like Danish and Norwegian, differs from both German and standard American English in being a true or symmetric double object language (Baker 1988, 174-180): as shown in (3), either the goal argument or the theme argument may be promoted to subject in passive.

(3) a. Han erbjöds ett nytt jobb.
he offered.PASS a new job
He was offered a new job.
b. Ett nytt jobb erbjöds honom.
a new job offered.PASS him

There are also British English dialects that are symmetric double object languages:

(4) A medal was given the professor that I told you about last week. (Bissell (2004, 95).

In the literature, the cross-linguistic variation concerning which element is promoted to subject is either said to have something to do with Case (cf. e.g. Baker 1988, 1996, Holmberg 2002), or it is understood in terms of locality conditions on movement (Falk 1990, Holmberg & Platzack 1995, McGinnis 1998, Anagnostopoulou 2002 and Bissell 2004). None of these accounts are without drawbacks, however. I will therefore suggest a partly new account, couched within the Minimalist program, mainly implementing the feature driven account presented in recent work by Pesetsky and Torrego (2001, 2004), according to which T and v are probes, and the relevant features are τ (tense) and φ (person, number, gender).
In the account presented here, properties of the indirect object are claimed to be solely responsible for the variation at hand. In particular, I suggest that the presence of dative morphology on the indirect object makes the features of this object opaque for the probes T and v, forcing the direct object to be promoted in the passive of ditransitive verbs. When dative case is lost in English and Swedish at the end of the mediaeval period, the features of the indirect object stay opaque for a couple of centuries, only allowing promotion of the direct object. In the beginning of the 19th century we observe a slow increase in the promotion of the indirect object, indicating that its features begin to be accessible for the derivation. It is first during the 20th century that this use has been more generally accepted, and in standard American English the alternative option is no longer available.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGrammar and Beyond. Essays in honour of Lars Hellan
EditorsMila Vulchanova, Tor A. Åfarli
PublisherNovus Forlag
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015.
The record was previously connected to the following departments: Swedish (015011001)

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Languages and Literature


  • Feature driven syntax
  • Ditransitive verb
  • Passive
  • Icelandic
  • Swedish
  • English
  • Danish
  • Probe-goal
  • Old Scandinavian


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