Jennifer Jean show how to corpora can help the language professional
‘Get’-passives have always been problematic to teach and to learn because
pedagogical materials do not always provide clear and exhaustive definitions regarding their usage. Corpora, however, can help us to shed light on this enigmatic passive variant. By conducting a finegrained quantitative and qualitative analysis on 500 examples of ‘get’-passives and 500 examples of ‘be’-passives from the British National Corpus (BNC), I have traced a behavioural profile of the ‘get’-passive against the ‘be’-passive; this profile shows that ‘get’-passives display a wide range of functions which, to simplify teachability and learnability, can be summarised using two broader categories.
Consider the following examples of ‘get’-passives:
The guys who have the brains can’t get elected.
Single women over 40 had a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than getting married.
It’s not often that someone can get paid for doing what they like most.
You must not get whipped.
Stoke went to the Haçienda one night and got bitten bad.
What are the reasons that lead the speakers to select the auxiliary ‘get’ instead of the standard passive auxiliary ‘be’? As we will see, it is often the co-occurrence of many aspects combined together, ranging from register and collocations to the wider context in which the ‘get’-passives occur.
Register and collocations
One already well-known feature of ‘get’- passives is that they tend to occur in informal registers and in spoken language.
Furthermore, when the verb ‘get’ is used as an auxiliary in passives, it typically collocates with highly dynamic, telic (i.e. viewed as complete) and punctual verbs (which do not imply duration), such as e.g. ‘get hit’, ‘get killed’, ‘get caught’.
As mentioned above, the ‘get’-passive displays a wide range of functions, some
of which, such as ‘dynamicity’, ‘adversity’, ‘benefit’ and ‘subject responsibility’ have already been widely discussed in the literature, whereas others have never been identified and analysed in detail before.
One of the advantages of corpus methods is that they allow us to analyse large quantities of data in a systematic way and see patterns which would normally go undetected. It must be noted, however, that in most cases there are no clear boundaries between the various functions, in that they frequently overlap,
and several functions tend to co-occur.
But let’s look at these functions in detail.
Dynamicity: one of the main functions of the ‘get’-passive is to disambiguate between a stative and dynamic reading (Carter and McCarthy 1999), as in ‘the window got broken’ (dynamic) versus‘the window was broken’ (ambiguous between a stative reading and a dynamic reading). In other words, when the context does not make it sufficiently clear, we can choose to use a ‘get’- passive to avoid ambiguity between a pre-existing state and an action.
❚ Adversity (Lakoff 1971): the ‘get’-passive is often found to be associated with negative events; this is partially due to the inherently adverse semantics of the lexical verbs which tend to be used in ‘get’-passives (‘get killed, hit, caught’); however, sometimes such adversity emerges from the wider context and reflects the speaker’s point of view. In ‘I didn’t get paid’, for instance, ‘getting paid’ would be inherently positive – it is the negation ‘didn’t’ that turns it into a negative experience.
❚ Benefit: as with adversity, we may interpret the ‘get’-passive as describing
a beneficial circumstance, because of the inherently positive semantics of the lexical verb (as in ‘get paid’) or it may simply reflect the speaker’s point of view – the fact of ‘getting killed’ is inherently negative, but in an example like ‘the terrorist got killed’, one might argue that it is not so negative.
❚ Subject responsibility (Huddleston and Pullum 2002): one label which has commonly been attributed to the “get” – passive is the fact that the subject seems to be at least partly responsible for what has happened to him/her. In these kinds of examples there is often a cause and effect relationship, as in the following example : Don’t mention Labour here or you’ll get lynched.
Besides these four well-known functions, I have identified a number of additional functions which are associated with ‘get’- passives; the two novel, most salient of these are ‘mirativity’ and ‘intersubjective mirativity’, which signal new, unexpected and therefore surprising information.
❚ Mirativity: the term ‘mirativity’ refers to the grammatical marking of unexpected information (Delancey 2012). I have found that the ‘get’-passive is used as a device to show the speaker’s surprise: The teenager won’t put her soiled clothing in the laundry basket as requested; they don’t get washed.
❚ Intersubjective mirativity: I use the term ‘intersubjective mirativity’ to label those (frequent) cases in which the ‘get’- passive is used as an attention-grabbing device, in other words, to generate surprise in the listener: Will I get paid? No! Work Experience is part of your education.
Minor additional functions
❚ Helplessness or loss of control: the subject of these ‘get’-passives is a victim of circumstances: He dare not extend his front arm since he may get pulled over.
❚ Increased focus on external agent: this function sometimes overlaps with ‘helplessness/lack of control’; there is a tendency for a number of ‘get’-passives to be used as a ‘contrast device’ by opposing a clause in the active voice and one in the passive voice, thus placing extra emphasis on the agentive
role of the agent, even though the agent may not be explicitly mentioned or
placing extra emphasis on the passive role of the ‘victim’ (i.e. the patient):
There are those who torture and those who get tortured.
❚ Overcome potential difficulty: some ‘get’-passives seem to underline a possible successful outcome in a problematic situation:
You might get served quickly.
❚ Suddenness: a large proportion of ‘get’-passives seem to be associated with the notion of suddenness. This is most probably due to the highly dynamic nature of the verbs which typically collocate with a ‘get’-passive: The pavement’s pretty crowded with people and I keep getting bumped.
Two ‘umbrella’ functions:dynamicity and surprise
In order to simplify the teaching and learning of such constructions, all of these functions could be subsumed under two broader categories, namely ‘dynamicity’and ‘surprise’, which include − in varying degrees − all of the other functions identified. Indeed, adversity entails helplessness, negative events over which we have no control are often characterised by suddenness and unexpectedness, and are therefore necessarily dynamic and surprising; overcoming a difficulty would be considered beneficial, and negative or beneficial events are normally described in an emotionally charged way, either showing the speaker’s surprise (mirativity) or trying to draw the attention and generate surprise in the listener (intersubjective mirativity).
Tense and subject distribution
The study has also shown that there is a general trend for both ‘be’-passives and ‘get’-passives to favour the use of the simple present and the simple past over other tenses. However, one significant difference has emerged between the two: ‘get’-passives are extremely rare in the present perfect and past perfect tenses, which has important implications when deciding what tenses to teach and which to teach first when dealing with the passive voice.
Finally, the majority of ‘be’-passives have inanimate (i.e. nonliving/ non-sentient) subjects, whereas ‘get’- passives show almost inversely proportional results, with a very high proportion of animate (all human) subjects (Figure 1),thus reinforcing the notion of subjectivity, or personal involvement, associated with the ‘get’-passive, as opposed to the neutrality associated with the ‘be’-passives. All these features provide a clear picture of the contexts in which ‘get’-passives are used,thus making it possible to compile an ID-card of the ‘get’-passive. (table 1)
|Subject||Tense distribution||Main functions||Agent by phrase|
|Most frequent tenses|
‘surprise’ as umbrella terms including:
– attention-grabbing device
– speaker’s surprise
– overcome potential difficulty
– increased focus on agent
This study has shown that the two main functions associated with the ‘get’-passive are ‘dynamicity’ and ‘surprise’, either signalling the speaker’s surprise or to generate surprise in the listener, in other words, as an attention-grabbing device. These can be viewed as umbrella constructions, which include the different senses typically associated with ‘get’- passives, ranging from adversity, subject responsibility and emotive involvement, to beneficial circumstances. The fact that the ‘get’-passive is used to convey or to generate surprise would also explain why it is used for apparently opposite meanings, such as adversity (‘get killed’) and benefit (‘get paid’), in that we usually talk about particularly negative or positive facts in an almost exclamatory tone.
Being aware of such patterns is crucial when deciding what to teach, how to teach it and prioritising what to teach first. When teaching the difference between ‘be’- passives and ‘get’-passives, for instance, teachers could show students the contrast between more neutral, impersonal, factual ‘be’-passives and the more emotionally charged, attention-grabbing, dynamic ‘get’-passives by providing a number of genuine examples taken from a native corpus, highlighting that ‘get’-passives are found in more informal registers and are typical of spoken language, bearing in mind that today written texts like emails and text messages do not adhere to the conventions of written language and tend to mirror spoken language.
One further characteristic which is worth highlighting when teaching the passive voice is that, unlike the ‘be’-passive, which is quite free from constraints, the ‘get’-passive occurs in a limited number of tenses and is most frequent in the simple present and the simple past, and − most importantly − is hardly ever found in the present perfect and past perfect tenses.
Corpora and corpus methods enable language professionals to see patterns in language that would not be detectable otherwise, hence corpus-based research is invaluable in informing reference grammars, materials used in ELT and in teacher training.
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. 1999. ‘The English get-passive in spoken discourse: description and implications for an interpersonal grammar’. English Language and Linguistics 3/1: 41−58. DeLancey, S. 2012. ‘Still mirative after all these years’. Linguistic Typology 16/3: 529–564. Huddleston, R. and G. Pullum. 2002.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lakoff, R. 1971. ‘Passive resistance’. Papers from the Second Regional Meeting. Chicago Linguistic Society. 149−162.