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Bridging contrastive study and language acquisition research A corpus-based study of passives in English and Chinese. Richard Xiao Overview of the talk. Corpora for contrastive study Passives in English and Chinese Passive errors in Chinese learner English.

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Bridging contrastive study and language acquisition researchA corpus-based study of passives in English and Chinese

Richard Xiao

Penn State

Overview of the talk

  • Corpora for contrastive study

  • Passives in English and Chinese

  • Passive errors in Chinese learner English

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Corpora for contrastive study

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Parallel corpora? No

  • Two types of multilingual corpora

  • Parallel corpus = source texts + translations

  • Some misunderstandings, e.g.

    • ‘translation equivalence is the best available basis of comparison’ (James 1980: 178)

    • ‘studies based on real translations are the only sound method for contrastive analysis’ (Santos 1996: i)

  • But…

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Evidence of translationese (1)

  • An unrepresentative special variant

  • A ‘third code’ (Frawley 1984: 168)

  • Four core patterns of lexical use (Laviosa 1998)

    • a relatively low proportion of lexical words over function words

    • a relatively high proportion of high-frequency words over low-frequency words

    • a relatively great repetition of most frequent words

    • less variety in most frequently used words

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Evidence of translationese (2)

  • Beyond the lexical level -

    • Normalization, simplification (Baker 1993/1999)

    • Explicitation (Øverås 1998)

    • Sanitization (Kenny 1998)

    • Aspect markers twice as frequent in L1 Chinese (McEnery & Xiao 2002)

  • Parallel corpora: unreliable for contrastive study

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Comparable corpora: Yes

  • Comparable corpus = same sampling techniques + similarbalance and representativeness

  • Well suited for contrastive study

  • Some E-C contrastive studies

    • Aspect marking (e.g. McEnery, Xiao & Mo 2003)

    • Situation aspect (e.g. Xiao & McEnery (2004a)

    • Collocation and semantic prosody (e.g. Xiao & McEnery 2005)

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Passives constructionsin English and Chinese

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Corpus data

  • Two English corpora

    • Freiburg-LOB (FLOB)

    • BNCdemo

  • Two Chinese corpora

    • Lancaster Corpus of Mandarin Chinese (LCMC)

    • LDC CallHome Mandarin Transcripts

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Text categories in FLOB and LCMC

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Two major passives types in English

  • Be vs. get-passives

    • Dynamic vs. stative

      • e.g. Go and get/*be changed! (BNCdemo)

    • Infinitival complements

      • e.g. they liked to be/*get seen to go to church (BNCdemo)

    • Contrast in overall frequencies

      • 955 vs. 31 instances of be-passives vs. get-passives per 100K words

    • Writing vs. speech

      • Normalised frequencies (per 100K words)

        • Be-passives: 854 (W) vs. 101 (S)

        • Get-passives: 5 (W) vs. 26 (S)

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Long vs. short forms by register

  • Long vs. short passives

  • Distribution in speech & writing

  • Short passives more frequent in S than W

    • LL=209.225 for 1 d.f., p<0.001

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Long vs. short forms by passive type

  • Get-passives are more likely than be-passives to occur in shortforms

    • LL=76.015 for 1 d.f., p<0.001

  • Agentsin get-passives Impersonal, e.g.

    • got caught by the police

  • Inanimate, e.g.

    • got knocked down by a car

  • Personal agents: informationally dense, semantically indispensable, e.g.

    • The bleeding fat girl, he got asked out by her. (BNC)

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Adverbials in English passives

  • Passives with no adverbial are much more common than those with an adverbial – true for both be- and get-passives

  • Adverbials are more frequent in be- passives than get-passives

    • 17.7% of be-passives; 7% of get-passives

  • Less diversified in get-passives

    • Typically ‘have an intensifying or focusing role’ (Carter & McCarthy 1999: 53)

  • Proportions of be-passives with an adverbial are similar in S & W

    • 19.5% (S) vs. 17.3% (W)

  • BUT the proportion of get-passives with an adverbial is much greater in W than S

    • 15.2% (W) vs. 6.6% (S)

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Pragmatic meanings

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Collocation analysis

  • Observation of pragmatic meanings of get-passives is supported by collocation analysis

    • z score>3.0, frequency>3, L0-R1

  • Collocates of get-passives are more likely to show a negative pragmatic meaning

    • Negative get-passives: 46.5% in BNCdemo (one collocate in FLOB: married)

    • Negative be-passives: 27% in BNCdemo and 8% in FLOB

    • Get-passives NOT necessarily more frequently negative in S

      • Proportions of negative cases: 45.8% (W) vs. 37.3% (S)

        • Exceptionally high co-occurrence frequency of a few neutral collocates of get-passives in S (married, paid, dressed, changed)

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Collocation vs. style

  • Get-passives are more informal in style

    • More restricted in collocation, more likely to refer to daily activities and be used in informal expressions

      • GET - dressed, changed, weighed, fed (i.e. eat), washed, cleaned

      • GET - pricked, hooked, mixed (up), carried (away), muddled (up), sacked, kicked (out), stuffed, thrown (out), chucked, pissed, nicked

    • Rarely found among the top 100 collocates of be-passives

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Style vs. distribution

  • Stylistic difference > distribution

  • Be-passives: over 8 times as frequent in FLOB (A-R) as in BNCdemo (S)

    • Of written genres, more common in informative texts (A-J) than imaginative writing (K-R)

    • Exceptionally frequent in H & J (cf. Biber 1988)

  • Get-passives typically occur in speech and colloquial, informal genres

    • Over 5 times as frequent in speech as in writing

    • Of written genres, exceptionally frequent in E (leisure) & R.

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Syntactic functions

  • Finite vs. non-finite

    • Finite: predicate

    • Non-finite: adjectival, adverbial, complement, object, subject

  • Typically used as predicates

    • 97% of be-passives and 96% of get-passives

    • Sometimes found in object and complement positions

    • Rarely used as subjects

  • Distribution of get-passives is more balanced across syntactic functions

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Passives in Chinese: Notional, syntactic vs. lexical

  • Marked (47%) vs. unmarked (53%) passives

    • Unmarked passives: notional or pseudo-passives

    • Topic sentences (topic + comment)

      • e.g. fan (meal)<*bei (PSV)> zuo-hao (do-ready) le (PERF) ‘The dinner is cooked (ready)’ (LCMC)

  • Syntactic vs. lexical passives

    • Passivised verbs do not inflect morphologically

    • Syntactic passive markers

      • Bei: the most frequent, ‘universal’ passive marker

      • Gei, jiao, rang: not fully grammaticalised, typically in colloquial genres & dialects

      • Wei…suo: archaic, only in formal written genres

    • Lexical passives: ai, shou(dao), zao(dao)

      • Inherently passive

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Long vs. short passives

  • Bei and gei: in both long (40%, 43%) and short (60%, 57%) passives

  • Wei,jiao and rang: only in long passives

  • Shou and zao: more frequent in short (68%, 63%) than long (32%, 37%) passives

  • Ai: almost exclusively in short passives (97%)

  • Long passives: in speech and colloquial genres; short passives: typically in written genres such as J, H and G

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Agent NPs in syntactic vs. lexical passives

  • Can be systematically interpreted as attributive modifiers of (nominalised) verbs in lexical passives, but cannot in syntactic passives, cf.

    • A) danshi (but) zhe (this) yi (one) jianyi (proposal) zaodao (suffer) Xide (West Germany) zongli (prime minister)<de (PRT)> jujue (reject/rejection) ‘But this proposal was rejected by the prime minister of West Germany’ (LCMC)

    • B) wo-men (we) na-ge (that-CL) che (car), bei (PSV) Xinhuan (Xinhuan) <*de (PRT)> nong-huai (ruin) le (PERF) ‘Our car was ruined by Xinhuan’ (CallHome)

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Syntactic functions

  • Most frequent in the predicate position

    • 76% of syntactic passives (74% of bei); 75% of lexical passives

  • Non-predicate uses

    • Attributive modifier: second most important syntactic function (14%)

    • Uncommon as subjects or complements

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Interaction with aspect

  • Interacting with aspect closely (Xiao and McEnery 2004b)

    • Syntactic passives convey an aspectual meaning of result

  • Bare passives account for the largest proportions of syntactic (40%) and lexical (78%) passives

  • BUT perfective -le is not uncommon in both syntactic (17%) and lexical (11%) passives

  • RVCs and resultative de-structure are more common in syntactic passives; bare forms are more frequent in lexical passives

  • Passivised verbs in bare forms are uncommon in syntactic passives, especially when they function as predicates

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Pragmatic meanings

  • Typically express a negative pragmatic meaning

    • “usually of unfavourable meanings” (Chao 1968: 703)

      • Universal passive marker bei derived from its main verb usage, meaning ‘suffer’ (Wang 1957)

      • Under the influence of Western languages, Chinese passives are no longer restricted to verbs with an inflictive meaning

    • Proportions of negative pragmatic meaning

      • Syntactic passives: gei (68%), rang (67%), bei (52%), jiao (50%), wei (19%)

      • Lexical passives: ai (100%), zao (100%), shou (65%)

    • Collocates of bei-passives

      • 51% negative, 39% neutral, 10% positive

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Distribution across genres

  • 11 times as frequent in writing as in speech

  • Most common in religious writing (D) and mystery/ detective stories (L)

    • Mystery/detective stories are often concerned with victims who suffer from various kinds of mishaps or what criminals do to them

    • In religions, human beings are passive animals whose fate is controlled by some kind of supernatural force

  • Least frequent in news editorials (C) and official documents (H)

  • Universal passive marker bei

    • Contrast in proportions between long vs. short passives typically less marked in 5 types of fiction (K-P), humour (R) and speech (S)

    • Predominantly negative in speech (S); more often than not negative in news editorials (C), mystery/detective stories (L), and adventure stories (N); but rarely negative in official documents (H) and academic prose (J)

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Contrast: Overall frequencies

  • Passive constructions are significantly more common in English than in Chinese (nearly 10 times as frequent)

    • English (be-)passives occur in both dynamic and stative situations; Chinese passives can only occur in dynamic events

    • Chinese passives typically have a negative pragmatic meaning; English passives (esp. be-passives) do not

    • Unmarked notional passives are more common in Chinese

      • Chinese topic-oriented; English subject-oriented

    • English tends to over-use passives, esp. in formal writing (Quirk 1968; Baker 1985); Chinese tends to avoid syntactic passives wherever possible

      • Chinese uses topic sentences instead

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Contrast: Long vs. short passives

  • The agent NP in the long passive follows the passivised verb in English but precedes it in Chinese

  • Short passives are predominant in English; long passives are not uncommon in Chinese

    • Passives are used in English to avoid mentioning the agent

    • The agent must normally be spelt out in Chinese passives

      • This constraint has become more relaxed nowadays

  • When it is difficult to spell out the agent…

    • Passives are used in English

    • In Chinese, a vague expression such as ren/youren ‘someone’ or renmen ‘people’ is used instead of using passives

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Contrast: Pragmatic meanings

  • Chinese passives are more frequently used with a negative pragmatic meaning than English passives

    • Chinese passives were used at early stages primarily for unpleasant or undesirable events; the semantic constraint on the use of passives has become more relaxed, especially in writing

    • Rank order of meaning categories

      • English: neutral > negative > positive

      • Chinese: negative > neutral > positive

    • In this respect, the get-passive is more akin to Chinese passives than the unmarked be-passive – more stylistically oriented

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Contrast: Syntactic functions

  • Passives are most frequently used in the predicate position in English and Chinese

  • Proportion of passives used as predicates in English (over 95%) is much greater than that in Chinese (76% on average)

  • More frequent in the object than subject position in both languages

  • More frequent as attributive modifiers in Chinese; more frequent as complements in English

  • Passives in Chinese (esp. bei-passives) are more balanced across syntactic functions than English passives

  • Chinese passives in the predicate position typically interact with aspect but this interaction is not obvious in English

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Contrast: Distribution

  • Unmarked English (be-)passives more frequent in informative (A-J) than imaginative writing (K-R); get-passives more common in speech and informal written genres

    • H and J show very high proportions of passives in English, but they have the lowest proportions of passives in Chinese

      • Unmarked English passives function to mark objectivity and a formal style but Chinese passives do not have this function

  • In Chinese, wei typically occurs in formal written genres; jiao, rang and gei are used in colloquial genres

    • Mystery/detective stories (L) and religious writing (D) show exceptionally high proportions of passives in Chinese

  • Different distributions are associated with different functions

    • English (be-)passives: an impersonal, objective and formal style

    • Chinese passives: ‘inflictive voice’

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Contrast: Typological differences

  • Klaiman’s (1991: 23) 3-way classification of grammatical voices

    • Basic (unmarked) voice: active/middle voice

    • Derived/non-basic (marked) voice: passivisation

    • Pragmatic voice: involving ‘assignment to some sentential arguments of some special pragmatic status or salience’ (Klaiman 1991: 24)

  • English passive: derived voice

  • Chinese passive: pragmatic voice

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Passive errors in Chinese Learner English

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  • CLEC: the Chinese Learner English Corpus

    • One million words

    • Essays

    • Five proficiency levels

  • LOCNESS: the Louvain Corpus of Native English Essays

    • 324,304 words

    • Essays

    • British A-Level children and British/American university students

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Under-use of passives

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Long vs. short passives

  • Long passives are slightly more frequent in Chinese learner English

    • Long passives in CLEC

      • 9.14%: 888 out of 9,711

    • Long passives in LOCNESS

      • 8.44%: 461 out of 5,465

  • Not statistically significant

    • LL=2.184, 1 d.f., p=0.139

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Pragmatic meanings

  • Passives are more frequently negative in Chinese learner English

    • CLEC

      • Negative: 25.7%

      • Positive: 5.9%

      • Neutral: 68.4%


      • Negative: 16.8%

      • Positive: 4.4%

      • Neutral: 78.8%

    • LL=7.4, 2 d.f., p=0.025

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Passive errors vs. learner levels

  • Learners at higher levels generally make fewer passive errors

  • Four major types of passive errors

  • Under-use is the most important error type

  • Learning curve is not a straight line, especially for difficult items

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Error types vs. learner levels

  • Error types are associated with learner levels

    • LL=51.774, 12.d.f., p<0.001

  • Similar learner groups make similar types of errors

    • ST2 >> ST3: statistically significant (LL=27.303, 3 d.f., p<0.001)

    • ST3 >> ST4: not significant (LL=6.955, 3 d.f., p=0.073)

    • ST4 >> ST5: statistically significant (LL=18.563, 3 d.f., p<0.001)

    • ST5 >> ST6: not significant (LL=6.987, 3 d.f., p=0.072)


(High (Junior/Senior (Junior/Senior

school non-English English major

students) major students) students)

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Under-use: L1 transfer

  • Borne out of the contrastive analysis

  • Confirmed by the CLEC-LOCNESS comparison

  • Result of L1 transfer

  • Typically occur with verbs whose Chinese equivalents are not normally used in passives, e.g.

    • A birthday party will hold in Lily’s house. (ST2)

    • …or our efforts will waste. (ST4)

    • The woman in white called Anne Catherick. (ST5)

  • Also under the influence of Chinese topic sentences

    • The supper had done. (ST2)

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Over-use: three major types

  • Intransitive verbs used in passives, e.g.

    • A very unhappy thing was happened in this week. (ST2)

    • Their friendships are not died off with the passing of time (ST4)

    • I was graduated from Zhongshan University (ST5)

  • Misuse of ergative verbs, e.g.

    • …the science <sic. secince> is developed quickly (ST4)

    • …infant mortality was declined (ST4)

  • Passive training effects, e.g.

    • …many machines <sic. machine> and appliances <sic. appliance> are usedelectricity as power (ST5)

    • Because they have been masteredeverything of this job… (ST4)

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Misformation: L1 interference

  • Result of L1 interference

  • Related to morphological inflections

    • Passivised verbs do not inflect in L1 Chinese

  • Tend to use uninflected verbs or misspelt past participles in passives, e.g.

    • The door is wrap with two coats of iron (ST5)

    • His relatives can not stop him, because his choice is protect by the laws. (ST6)

    • Since the People’s Republic of China <sic. china> was found on October 1, 1949… (ST2)

    • I was moving at that time, but I didn't cry. (ST2)

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Auxiliary omission: L1 interference

  • Result of L1 interference

    • Unmarked ‘notional passives’ are abundant in Chinese

  • Tend to omit or misuse auxiliaries in passives, e.g.

    • …and we will not satisfied with what we have done. (ST4)

    • In China, since the new China established, people’s life has gotten <sic. goten> better and better. (ST3)

    • I am not a smoker, but why dowe forced to be a second-hand smoker? (ST5)

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  • While passive constructions express a basic passive meaning in both English and Chinese, they also show a range of differences which are associated with their different functions in the two languages

  • Most passive-related errors made by Chinese learners of English can be accounted for from a contrastive perspective

  • A combination of contrastive study and learner corpus analysis can bring insights into language acquisition research

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Thank you!

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References (1)

  • Baker, M. (1993) ‘Corpus linguistics and translation studies’. In M. Baker, G. Francis & E. Tognini-Bonelli (eds.) Text and technology (pp. 233-52). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

  • Baker, M. (1999) ‘The role of corpora in investigating the linguistic behaviour of professional translators’. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 4: 281-98.

  • Baker, S. (1985) 1985. The Practical Stylist [6th ed.]. New York: Harper & Row.

  • Biber, D. (1988) Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (1999) ‘The English get-passive in spoken discourse’. English Language and Literature 3(1): 41-58.

  • Chao, Y. (1968) Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Frawley, W. (1984) ‘Prolegomenon to a theory of translation’. In W. Frawley (ed.) Translation: Literary, linguistic and philosophical perspectives (pp. 159-75). London: Associated University Press.

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References (2)

  • James, C. (1980) Contrastive Analysis. London: Longman.

  • Kenny, D. (1998) ‘Creatures of habit? What translators usually do with words?’ Meta 43(4).

  • Klaiman, M. (1991) Grammatical Voice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Laviosa, S. (1998) ‘Core patterns of lexical use in a comparable corpus of English narrative prose’. Meta 43(4).

  • McEnery, A and Xiao, Z. (2002) ‘Domains, text types, aspect marking and English-Chinese translation’. Languages in Contrast 2(2): 211-31.

  • McEnery, A., Xiao, Z. and Mo, L. (2003) ‘Aspect marking in English and Chinese’. Literary and Linguistic Computing 18(4): 361-78.

  • Mcenery, A., Xiao, Z. and Tono, Y. (2005) Corpus-Based Language Studies. London: Routledge.

  • Øverås, S. (1998) ‘In search of the third code: An investigation of norms in literary translation’. Meta 43(4).

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References (3)

  • Quirk, R. (1968) The Use of English [2nd ed.]. London: Longman.

  • Santos, D. (1996). Tense and Aspect in English and Portuguese: A contrastive semantical study. PhD thesis. Universidade Tecnica de Lisboa.

  • Wang, L. (1957) ‘Hanyu beidongju de fazhan (Development of Chinese passives)’. Yuyanxue Luncong (Studies in Linguistics) Vol. 1. Beijing: Commercial Printing. House.

  • Xiao, Z. and McEnery, A. (2004a) ‘A corpus-based two-level model of situation aspect’. Journal of Linguistics 40(2): 325-63.

  • Xiao, Z. and McEnery, A. (2004b) Aspect in Mandarin Chinese. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Xiao, Z. and McEnery, A. (2006) ‘Collocation, semantic prosody and near synonymy: a cross-linguistic perspective’. Applied Linguistics. [In press]

  • Xiao, Z, McEnery, A. and Qian, Y. (2006) ‘Passive constructions in English and Chinese: a corpus-based contrastive study’. Languages in Contrast 3(1).

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