LINGUIST List 5.138

Sun 06 Feb 1994

Disc: Transformations

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  1. , RE: 5.67 Qs: Transformations, Text, Halitosis, Mongolian
  2. Bill Bennett, asemantic transformations

Message 1: RE: 5.67 Qs: Transformations, Text, Halitosis, Mongolian

Date: Thu, 27 Jan 94 9:32 GMT
Subject: RE: 5.67 Qs: Transformations, Text, Halitosis, Mongolian

Annette McElligott asks whether the sentences

 John sprayed paint on the wall


 The wall was sprayed with paint by John

is evidence that transformations change meaning, or otherwise. It has always
seemed to me that it depends on what you understand by "meaning" in relation to

If you take "meaning" as the propositional content of the sentence, then no,
they don't as the two sentences clearly are identical. On the other hand, if
you take the "meaning" of "sentence" to include matters of perspective - for
want of a better term - which is the difference between the two as active and
passive structures, then the sentences are different, and yes the passive
transformation would.

Annette seems, however, to be following, for whatever reason, a superseded
version of Generative Grammar, since within GB Theory and its later
developments, there is no need for a passive transformation as such, since
structural preservation, the generation of empty nodes at D-S and move-a
between them provide for the generation of passive morphology in the D-S with
an empty subject node. English then requires an appropriate NP to be moved
into the empty node.

Thus, in later versions of the theory there is no "passive transformation", as
the structure is generated in the base and therefore no resulting change of
meaning. However, the fact remains that you can argue for a difference in
meaning between the sentences being the change of perspective.

On that question, would anyone like to come up with, or inform me of a suitable
term for the effect. I would like to use "focus" since in a sense you are
changing the focus of the sentence - but that term is used to refer to
nuclear-tone placement; Systemic Grammar would have it as part of the Theme
Macrosystem set of choices, but "Theme" is a true weasel-word with far too many
different definitions, almost rivalling "transitivity" in this;
"Topicalisation" similarly has entirely other definitions. So what is it
called, or is "perspective" an appropriate term - does it have any other
definitions in linguistics that I don't know about.

Mark Hilton
University of Westminster
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Message 2: asemantic transformations

Date: Thu, 03 Feb 94 18:16:15 GMasemantic transformations
From: Bill Bennett <>
Subject: asemantic transformations

I have not contributed to the interesting discussion of

 (a) Fred sprayed the wall with paint
 (b) The wall was sprayed with paint

etc., because I felt sure that someone would point out the structural ambiguity
of (b). But no-one appears to have done so.

-Sprayed- in (b) is just as likely to be interpreted, by the naive
speaker, as an adjective as it is a past participle. If the former case then
the reading is bound to be parallel to (c)

 (c) The wall was sprayed/red/covered/disfigured with paint.

Such an interpretation would explain the idea of "complete covering". It is the
ambiguity of (b) which appears to defeat the assertion of the asemantic effect
of transformations. In one sense, (b) is just the passive of (a); but in
another sense it is structurally quite different from (a).

I suggest for your consideration
 (d) Sid ate the potatoes with gusto
 (e) The potatoes were eaten with gusto

(e) here is not ambiguous ('eaten' is not, like 'half-eaten', an adjective). It
would be amusing to think of more "passives" which could not be structurally
ambiguous, because there could be no overlap between the past participle and an
adjective. I expect that French specialists will know of Eluard's poem
_Couvre-feu_, where the interplay of past participle and adjective is exploited
for effect.

My apologies for any extra delay in this contribution to debate; the computer
was not helping.

Bill Bennett
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