The Get-Passives as an Emotive Language Device

Term Paper 2008 31 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Be versus Get
2.1 Remarkable Content
2.2 Attachment
2.3 Dynamicity
2.4 Weaknesses of the theories

3. Methodology

4. Results
4.1 Remarkable Get-Passives vs. Remarkable Be-Passives
4.2. Non-Remarkable Get-Passives vs. Non-Remarkable Be-Passives
4.2.1 Shift of perspective I – Progressive aspect
4.2.2 Shift of perspective II - Outer forces

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Attachment
7a GET /GOT + PastParticiple
7b BE + PastParticiple

1. Introduction

With forming a passive-voiced sentence out of an active-voiced sentence, certain elements of a situation shall be emphasized. By making the recipient of the active-voiced form the grammatical subject of the passive-voiced sentence, its focus becomes reinforced due to the sentence-initial position. The passive is thus favoured over the active form when the receiver of an action (recipient) should be focused rather than the performer (agent) of the action. Next to the greater emphasis of the active-voice object, the passive is used to stress the result of an action (which is supported by the possibility of omitting the agent).

The structure be + past particle can be considered as the norm for English passives. Since the passive meaning is essentially expssed by past participles, be in the structure can also be replaced by other verbs such as get, become, remain etc. Considering be - and get -passives, there seems to be no obvious difference between the two forms. However, the get- passive would not be used at all unless it had a different meaning in comparison to the be -passive.

This paper aims to explore what the distinctive feature of the get -passive is. A major contribution to answer this question comes from Hübler who claims that the get -passive is used as means of an emotive language device. I will focus mainly, though not exclusively, on his contribution The Expssivity of Grammar. While many authors (Hatcher, Lakoff, Collins etc.) have tried to analyse the difference in meaning of the two passive forms, Hübler seems to have covered and united most of the theories, leading to the conclusion that the get -passive is used to expss emotional attachment. His theory is depicted in detail in the following chapter.

This paper should furthermore serve to test Hübler’s (somehow vast and seemingly to far spad) claims in contrasting both, be - and get -passives. On a corpus based study I will analyse 100 examples of each type of passive for their emotional content.

Finally the results of this analysis will be discussed and the two passive forms are compared in order to describe their differences in meaning.

2. Be versus Get

Most of the scientific sources that deal with the difference of get- and be -passives conclude that the get -passive is used to expss negative consequences of a situation. Already in 1949, Hatcher (and later Lakoff (1971)), found that get- passives are frequently used to indicate a speakers attitude towards the events described, i.e. whether they have fortunate or unfortunate consequences. This attitudinal nature is supposed to be associated with the patient-focused feature of the get -passive.

Also, recent contributions to the topic focus on the consequences of a situation described. In a mixed spoken and written corpus, Collins (1996) found 67 % adversative and only 23 % beneficial meanings of the words that go with get- passives. Likewise, Stubbs (2001) points out that the events described with the help of the get -passive may be advantageous but are much more likely disadvantageous. The nature of the collocations of the get -passive thus mirrors the attitudinal role. Typical examples he cites are:

- we nearly got chucked out
- costumers get embarrassed when talking about money
- one child get s hurt
- they got kicked out
- they got separated from the others

Finally, McEnery & Xiao (2005) show in a corpus based study that be -passives appear in different circumstances, dominating the neutral meaning category whereas get -passives are indeed used more frequently to expss a speaker’s attitude – typically viewing the consequences as unfortunate.

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Tab 1: Semantic properties of be- and get -passives in FLOB and BNCdemo (McEnery, Xiao, 2005)

In order to avoid the to narrow dichotomies of fortunate/unfortunate or good/bad consequences, Hübler (1998) generalizes the meaning surplus in noting that the use of get -passives shows nuances which indicate a speaker's emotional involvement or a speaker’s emotional attitude towards a propositional content.

With that claim, although it seems far stretched on the first sight, he covers situations, which are ‘ruled out’ when only focusing on the consequences. Whilest it is right to ascribe an attitudinal role to the term ‘consequences’, it could not explain the occurrence of the get -passive it sentences like She got sent to a private school. However, by summarizing the meaning surplus of get -passives as a speaker’s emotional attachment, this can be explained quite well. In this sense, analysing the collocations that go with the get- passives may be sufficient to explain the occurrence of get -passives in means of fortunate/unfortunate consequences. However, when dealing with the get- passive as an emotive language device in general, it is essential to consider the proposition as a whole.

2.1 Remarkable Content

A term which is central to Hübler’s claims is the notion of the remarkable content of an utterance He claims, that the get -passive is used, when the propositional content of an utterance is remarkable enough for a speaker to get emotionally involved (and is limited to that use). Hence it should be less surprising that the get- passive is found rather with a combination of emotionally loaded words such as caught, killed or cheated than with less emotionally loaded words such as invited or introduced.

However, the table above shows that the distribution of get -passives in the neutral meaning category is higher than in the negative one. According to Carter, McCarthy (1999), the occurrence of passives which belong to this category is not necessarily contradicting Hübler’s theory. For them, passives such as get paid are not surprising since “attitude is often strongly marked in utterances to do with money and payment, and upon the recipients of payment”. Hence, payment (as well as the lack of it) is highly of interest for both, individuals and societies and a matter “of controversy, criticism, wonder, pleasure, and annoyance”. That reveals a weakness: when corpus study merely concentrates on the verb following get, the importance - and thus the emotiveness - of an utterance is not necessarily covered. One task of this work, though, is to focus on the overall meaning of the proposition.

According to Hübler, the get -passive is even not acceptable when the propositional content does not fulfil the property of being remarkable. In this respect, example [1a] is said to be acceptable whereas [1b] is not:

[1a] She got sent to a private school.

[1b] * She got sent to school.

In [1a], the special type of the school characterizes the situation as something remarkable, thus the example deserves the use of the get -passive. On the other hand, [1b] describes a seemingly all day situation, hence is not remarkable. The borderlines, though, of what counts as remarkable is hard (if not impossible) to define. As Hübler claims himself, it is culture-dependent whether something is considered remarkable or not. E.g. in countries where it is not a matter of course to go to school, [1b] may be as acceptable as [1a]. It can never be ruled out for sure that the context of a proposition or pvious discourse makes utterances remarkable. This may be the case when evaluative comments are used as in [2a], by using quantification that marks something as rare or excessively frequent, shown in [2b], or by expssing that something had almost not taken place as in [2c].

[2a] She has all the luck: She got sent to school.

[2b] You’ve no idea, how often I get asked this question.

[2c] …but finally I got invited.

2.2 Attachment

In order to grasp a person’s emotional involvement, it is initially important to analyse which forms that involvement can take. In this respect Hübler speaks of attachment, for which remarkable content serves as an indicator. One can be attached to a situation adaptively (meaning to be personally involved in a situation) or adoptively (to discuss a problem). The use of the two passive forms differs concerning the speaker’s/writer’s attachment-level. Get -passives, he claims, are frequently used to expss attachment

which gets illustrated by their different syntactic environments. Hence, speakers pferably decide for the get -passive in the syntactic environment of a human subject whereas be -passives show an equal distribution of human and non-human subjects.

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Tab 2: Distribution of human/non-human subjects in different passive constructions (Hübler, 1998)

On the one hand this reflects the general principle of graded natural propensity of involvement, since it is more natural for a speaker to be attached to what happens to a human subject than to a non-human one (Hübler, 1998). On the other hand, attachment seems not to play that a big role in be -passives. Since speaker generally have the choice to not use the get - but the be -passive instead, this shows that the motivation for pferring the get- over the be- passive must lie outside the speaker’s intention to solely describe the affair at issue. The motivation is to reinforce the focus on the subject and the remarkable quality of the proposition. Especially when speaker and subject are identical the get -passive gives his or her utterance a personal flavour almost required. The speaker would appear detached rather than not attached to the situation without that device.

Consider the two examples which have the same propositional meaning but use different passives:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

[3a] I was caught by the police.

[3b] I got caught by the police.

The attachment is conveyed be an implied notion of dynamics. While [3a] sounds like an impersonal statement or mere report about a particular circumstance, [3b] rather brings the situation to life and indicates that the result of this circumstance has a certain consequence for the speaker. These subtle differences, however, cannot be captured

when meaning surplus was paraphrased. Paraphrasing [3b] in a sentence like I was caught by the police, which worried/annoyed me results in a loss of emotional attachment. Whereas the meaning may be pserved, the form changes and what was expssed indexically in [3a] is described symbolically. The descriptive and expssive language function is mixed up, the paraphrased example loses the goal out of sight and the expssivity is diminished.

2.3 Dynamicity

A major finding McEnery & Xiao (2005) mention is the concept of dynamicity. Especially when claiming that get -passives show emotional attachment and got rather to do with negative consequences, it is important to explain the relatively high occurrence of collocations with neutral meaning verbs. The attitudinal role of the get -passive alone cannot explain why verbs like dress and change are so often used with it. The reason for the neutral occurrences, and yet a fundamental difference between get - and be -passives is that “the get -passive occurs only in dynamic events while the be- passive can occur in both, dynamic and static situations” (McEnery, Xiao (2005)). Already Jespersen (1949) pointed out, that the difference between be- and get- passives is closely allied with the state vs. transition distinction. In the same line, Chappell (1980) observed that the get- passive encodes change of state. This change-of-state feature also accounts for the difference between passive variants such as be married and get married. Strikingly, even static verbs are forced to show dynamic meaning as [4a] (be, static) and [4b] (get, dynamic) show:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

[4a] Okay to you and me tetanus is known by what?

[4b] Get your foot in the door, get known.

The meaning of the grammatical structure (‘ get -passive’) overrides that of the individual word (‘known’ as a state verb), resulting in a semantic assimilation (Xiao and McEnery, 2004).

2.4 Weaknesses of the theories

In this chapter I want to point out the weaknesses of the above approaches to the meaning of the get -passive which as well describe the tasks of this work. First, and most important is to state what is meant with emotional and remarkable content. The following chapter deals with the operationalisation of these terms.

Second, I doubt that it is helpful to classify the examples of the corpus analysis into negative/neutral/positive categories. Since the focus lies on the question whether something is generally remarkable or not, it is not of interest, whether that is in a positive or negative way. Otherwise - just like the example of getting paid - there may turn out to be neutral verbs which nevertheless have the quality “remarkable” and a great emotional meaning. Furthermore, the whole proposition has to matter and not merely the verb following get.



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Get-Passives Emotive Language Device Language Emotion



Title: The Get-Passives as an Emotive Language Device