passive voice question
September 8, 2006 4:07 PM   Subscribe

He was killed; he got (himself) killed. It was sold; it got sold (possibly out from under me). What sort of semantic difference does using forms of "get" versus "be" in passive constructions convey?

At first I was thinking that "he got killed" makes it seem more like a process ("it got dark" meaning not that first it was light and then, wham!, dark, but that it gradually darkened), in which a sequence of events culminated in his death, with "he got himself killed" implicating him in the events' turning out the way they did. But I'm not sure that's right, really, especially with "it got sold". But it does seem that there's a distinction being made: "I wanted to buy it but it was sold to Jones (in the end)" and "I wanted to buy it but it got sold to Jones (in the end)" do seem different (and here I want to say that the second case is more impersonal than the first, that it just sort of magically got (itself) sold, whereas it was sold by someone). I did find this but the explanations seem inconsistent from example to example—eg, we're told that gunfire can't perform an action, much less cause itself to be heard, but books can't perform actions either, much less cause themselves to be torn.
posted by kenko to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The only difference to my ear is that "got" is somewhat slangy.
posted by Khalad at 4:18 PM on September 8, 2006

"got" implies action, while the "was" construction is inherently passive.
posted by clevershark at 4:53 PM on September 8, 2006

I think you're confusing "get" (become/be affected by) with "get" (acquire), one word with different meanings.

Compare "I got herpes from Dr. Duck" with "I got new boobs from Dr. Duck," neither of which is factual ... yet.
posted by rob511 at 4:57 PM on September 8, 2006

The differences go well beyond slang, but I don't think they are yet well understood. Also, most of the (recent) work that I know of about this has been about the syntax primarily, and only secondarily about the semantics. Here are two recent papers that at least provide references about the semantics (1, 2).

To convince people that there are more differences than slang, here are just a few of the contrasts (taken from the first of those papers):


a. They were not arrested.
*They got not arrested.

b. Were they arrested?
*Got they arrested?

c. They were arrested, weren’t they?
*They got arrested, gotn’t they?

There are many more differences found in just those papers.
posted by advil at 4:57 PM on September 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think you're confusing "get" (become/be affected by) with "get" (acquire), one word with different meanings.

I don't think any of kenko's examples involved the "acquire" version of get -- that version involves a direct object and no following verb in the -EN form (which sometimes is the same as the -ed form). However, there is almost certainly a difference between the passive "he got arrested" and causative "he got them arrested" (which is the same structure as "he got himself arrested").
posted by advil at 5:01 PM on September 8, 2006

In some cases, "got" can be used to describe an action happening, whereas the pure passive could indicate either an action or a state.

For example:
The book got torn
The book was torn

The second ("the book was torn") could merely indicate the state of the book, just like "the book was dirty", or "the book was dog-eared". By using "got", you indicate that you're not talking about the state of the book, but that something happened to the book.

Another example of this is "the record was scratched" vs. "the record got scratched".

This is just one difference that comes up from time to time, and isn't true for all cases, of course (for example, "the man got arrested" vs. "the man was arrested", which both mean the same thing)
posted by Bugbread at 5:06 PM on September 8, 2006

Interesting subject. Now you've got me thinking. Ira Gershwin penned the lyrics, "I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man . . .", and I always 'heard', "I have rhythm, I have music," but maybe he meant, "some time ago, I finally learned rhythm and music, and I found a romantic partner, who could ask for anything more?" A bit off topic but I work with many people whose first language is not English. I try to explain idioms; 'get' would be a long lesson. Get up, get down, get in, get out, get off, get on (board), get over, get by, get through, get around, get with (it) get beyond, GOT MILK?
(by George, I think she's got it!)
posted by namret at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2006

You might be interested in looking into the 'ergative' case of some languages, which addresses a similar distinction in a much cleaner fashion.

Surprisingly, the wikipedia article on the ergative case is (uncharacteristically) useless. This is taken from a google search and isn't a bad layman's explanation:
Some languages, such as Basque, have a different arrangement of cases. Instead of the subject of the sentence always being in the same case (the nominative), the subject of intransitive sentences (e.g. "The window broke") and the object of transitive sentences (e.g. "I broke the window) are in the same case, the absolutive, while the subjects of transitive sentences (e.g. "I broke the window") are in the ergative case.
Taken from: (the ?) Zompist

You will also find a similar distinction to explore here (even if you don't understand japanese):

Matching pairs of transitive/intransitive verbs

if you have the additional bit of knowledge that despite the difference in meaning between say, shimeru (to close, shut, something) and shimaru (to close, shut (oneself)) there are separate passive forms...I'd argue the semantic distinction you're getting at is the same as what's going on in the Japanse examples (and, in general, in the ergative case). A precise formulation is hard to get at, though.
posted by little miss manners at 7:50 PM on September 8, 2006

Just to clarify slightly, I am not proposing some latent ergative case in English ( or in Japanese ), but simply that, at some level, an ergative resembles a passive construction done differently: rather than overtly passify a transitive verb, one has a verb that grammatically looks active and yet, 'morally speaking', means something close-to-but-not-exactly-the-same as some passified transitive verb.

The above is pretty close to what your alternation of was and got demonstrates: the 'was Xed' employs the standard passifying technique on X, whereas the 'got Xed' means something very similar to the passive form but retains the appearance of being an active form.

In my opinion, you could wade through a couple papers of formal semantics and spend years (or even, probably, write a dissertation on) the fine-grained differences between English 'was Xed' and 'got Xed' without ever quite nailing the distinction down precisely, or you could look at some examples of similar distinctions -- but made more cleanly and systematically -- in other languages, and even if you still can't nail it down at least you'll have seen (in my opinion) the same phenomenom as manifested in several distinct environments.
posted by little miss manners at 8:06 PM on September 8, 2006

(I am a computational linguist who designs elicitation corpora based in language typology. I get to think about this sort of thing all of the time.)

The difference between "It got sold" vs. "It was sold" or "He got killed" vs. "He was killed" is an implied lack of control. In either case (and even "it got dark") it is implied that a sequence of events is beyond the control of the speaker or another party. The speaker has no control over the sudden onset of darkness, no control over whether or not the object was sold, and no control over who was killed. Japanese grammaticalizes this as does Tagalog, at least by our definition of grammaticalize.

The 'get' vs. 'be' constructions are both forms of passivization, but 'get' can be seen as an even more passive. Passives are really just constructions that take non-subject grammatical relations and raise them to the subject position. So you go from "The owner sold it"to "It was sold", if you see the owner in the second sentence he /she is relegated merely an oblique like "by the owner".

Now, consider this:
"The soldier killed him."
"He was killed by the soldier."
"He was killed."
"He got killed."

In each case we get more distant from the original actor, in this case the subject soldier. There is more distance between the speaker and the source of action. This can be viewed and a continuum of control; the further out the speaker, the more removed he/she is from the control.

This explanation is a bit half-baked. I shall have to see if it still makes sense in the morning.
posted by Alison at 9:42 PM on September 8, 2006

All I know is that here in NC "He got his self killed" (or "kilt") would be correct.
posted by JamesMessick at 8:03 PM on September 9, 2006

Since this is fun I don't buy either of Alison's characterizations.

Consider the following:

'He got promoted.'
'He was promoted.'

Which sounds as if 'he' was the more passive/less responsible for the promotion?

To go out on a limb I'd argue that the 'get-passive' has two implications:
(i) that the action results from some previous action(s) taken by the subject
(ii) however, the chain of causality may be too complicated/lengthy/involved to include (for pragmatic reasons)

which would be in contrast to 'was-passives', in which there's no necessary implication of any chain of causality connecting prior actions of the subject with the action of the was-passified verb.

That takes care of the 'control' axis. The 'distance' axis doesn't seem quite the right characterization, either; I suspect the 'distance' is more along the lines of 'was-passive' implies a distancing from the event (not necessarily from the control or the subject) and attempt to strip it of causality-supplying contexts, whereas 'got-passives' leave the implication that a causality-supplying context exists, even if they typically elide that context.
posted by little miss manners at 9:18 AM on September 12, 2006

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