LINGUIST List 4.571

Mon 26 Jul 1993

Sum: Passive

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Barbara.Abbott", passive frequency summary

Message 1: passive frequency summary

Date: Mon, 19 Jul 93 15:41 EDT
From: "Barbara.Abbott" <>
Subject: passive frequency summary

Thanks to all those responded to my recent request about
frequency of passives: Sue Blackwell, Brian Blinson, Kay
Bock, Simon Corston, Louise Cornelis, Scott DeLancey,
Pamela Downing, David Gil, Jeff Kaplan, Charles Meyer,
Dennis Preston. I did in fact get one reference backing up
the claim that passives are more frequent, but not for
English. The other references support the claim that
passives are less frequent than actives. Here is a summary.
In Quirk et al.'s _A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
Language_, it is stated on pp. 166-7 that overall in English
the active voice is more frequent than the passive voice.
However, they also note that the frequency of the voices
varies by genre, with the passive being more frequent in
certain genres (e.g. informative prose) than in others
(e.g. imaginative prose).
Svartvik, J. (1966). On voice in the English verb. The Hague:

It is corpus-based, and breaks the various corpora down so
that you can compare changes in the proportions of actives
and passives across different kinds of discourse.
There are some statistics on this in E. Judith Weiner and
Wm. Labov (1983) "Constraints on the agentless passive"
Journal of Linguistics 19:29-58. They find that, as far as
AGENTLESS passives go, passives constitute 40% of the
agentless sentences in their "careful" sample, 32% of their
"casual" sample.
One source is Talmy Givon, _On Understanding Grammar_,
pp. 57-65
Doug Biber's 1988 'Variation across speech and writing'
(Cambridge) reports on agentless and by-passives
separately for a large number of spoken and written genres
(in British English only). The highest mean score (per 1000
words) is for the written genre 'official documents,' in
which agentless passives are18.6 and by-passives are 2.1.
In phone conversations (the least) agentless passives are
down to 3.4 and there were no by-passives. This is from a
large and current corpus, but I doubt if it would be
significantly different for US English.The problem is that
there are no good spoken texts for such computational
studies derived from US data.
Hopper, Paul J. and Thompson, Sandra A.
 1980. `Transitivity in grammar and discourse.' Language

-- They give some pseudo-stats: 12% of backgrounded
clauses in their English corpus are passive, while 4% of
their foregrounded clauses are passive. They never give
sample sizes or anything though.

Svartvik, J.
 1966. _On voice in the English verb_. The Hague: Mouton.

Thompson, Sandra A.
 1987. `The passive in English: A discourse perspective.'
In Channon and Shockey (eds.) 497-511 _In honor of Ilse
Lehiste: Ilse Lehiste Puhendusteos
For some references to the effect that passives *are* more
frequent than actives, albeit in Austronesian languages see

David Gil, "On the Notion of 'Direct Object' in Patient
Prominent Languages", in F. Plank ed., "Objects: Towards a
Theory of Grammatical Relations", Academic Press, 1984.

and articles cited therein by Cena and de Guzman. As for
English, Givon (1979) "On Understanding Grammar" has
some percentages for various registers.
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