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Subject in the "wrong" place?

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Consider the following two sentences:

A. John was sent to fetch a parcel.

B. John was sent a parcel.

In A if we ask who or what was sent the answer is John. We have no trouble is asserting that “John” is the subject of the sentence.

In B if we ask who or what was sent the answer is “a parcel”. Despite the word order, that seems to lead to the conclusion that “a parcel” is the subject of the sentence and that “John” is the indirect object.

Now consider:

C. I was sent to fetch a parcel.

D. I was sent a parcel.

The change has people doubting that in D “I” can be anything other than the subject, but if you accept that “John” is the indirect object in B you have to accept that “I” is the indirect object in D. I have always thought this was pretty clear, but in a discussion on another forum I found I was unable to persuade anyone that, despite superficial appearances to the contrary arising from word order and  “I” being a subject pronoun, in both B and D the subject is “a parcel”.

Am I right?

I'm not sure what you would be right about, but you could be right about something. I think you're wrong if you think it's obvious, even if it is true. In A, you claim that John is the subject, and I have no quarrel with that. Then in B you conclude that "parcel" is the subject and John is the IO. But actually, John is the subject. Notice that we can substitute various pronouns and NPs in that position ("I was sent...", "you were sent...", "the children were sent...") and we notice that that first clause governs verb agreement – because that is the subject.

You are mixing syntactic and semantic analyses. The passive has the function of making the post-verbal nominal become the subject, and it exiles what would have been the subject into a "by" phrase (which you can just omit). In the good old days, semantic relations were determined before the various movement rules messed up what is the subject vs. the object.

You gave contradictory analyses to your examples. You assigned subject role in A based on the syntax (order and agreement), but then assigned the IO role to John in B based on semantics. You have to pick consistent diagnostics. This is why people sometimes talk of the "logical subject", when referring to semantic roles (and thereby avoiding the complication that "subject" isn't a semantic role, but "agent" is, as is "recipient").

I certainly do not think the point I am making is obvious. I note what you say about analysing the two forms in different ways. My point is that the form "I/John was given an apple" is an oddity which does not conform to the usual rules. The reason we have it is that it has arisen from a hypercorrection. Back when word order was more flexible, the usual (or at least more common) word order for "an apple was given (to) me" was (using modern English) "me was given an apple". When word order became fixed with the subject of a statement coming first and accordingly sentences beginning with "I" rather than "me", "me" was felt to be wrong and replaced by "I". It was only a small step from "I was given an apple" to "John was given an apple". The forms are now so well established that they are considered standard.

Is the reluctance to accept that "I" is not the subject simply because "I" is a subject pronoun and comes in the position where one expects the subject to come in a statement. If you say that "I" must be the subject because it is a subject pronoun that is to insist that the function must follow from the form. If you say that "I" or "John" must be the subject because it comes first in the sentence it is because you are following a rule which has been formulated without taking into account exceptions. In short, you are saying that because "I" and "John" behave by position and form as if they are the subject they must be the subject.

If in "John was given an apple" "John" is the subject, what is "apple"?

"Apple" is a direct object, or in relational grammar terms, a direct object chômeur (former direct object, having been usurped by Dative Movement). Functionally speaking, so-called subject/object/indirect object relations do not change. As I said. Formally, though, they do: something becomes the subject, or direct object. I would certainly insist that if one is asking about "subject" as a formal part of speech, that the form of the pronoun and facts about word order and governance of agreement are all and only the valid factors to consider. And if you are asking about functional relations, then you are not asking about formal relations – so you first have to decide what question you are asking; is it about form (syntax) or function (semantics)?

These facts are relatively well known, but not consistent with your analysis. The complication is that there are two possible ditransitive verb constructions in English with verbs like give, each of which appears to have a different primary object in terms of passivization:

1) You gave me a book.
2) You gave a book to me.

These can both be passivized, but in different ways:

1') I was given a book (by you).
2') A book was given to me (by you).

Note that the imaginable variants are ungrammatical:

1'') *A book was given me (by you).
2'') *I was given a book to (by you).

Actually, (2'') sounds slightly better than (1'') to my ears, but I'd still say both are ungrammatical. Regardless, neither of these forms is used, because when we want to passivize the direct object (THEME) we'd use (2') and when we want to passivize the indirect object (RECIPIENT) we'd use (1').

In other words, the variation here is about which underlying/corresponding non-passive sentence is used to generate the passive sentences.

I really don't follow what you're saying about "subject" because you're not using the term in a consistent or standard way. Simply put, the "subject" in English is almost always easily identifiable as the first noun in the sentence, taking nominative case (only marked in pronouns), and with which the verb agrees. There are some odd exceptions or marginal cases, like "there is/are" existentials (where, varying by speaker or formality and apparently a case of ongoing historical change now, sometimes the verb agrees with "there" and sometimes the 'logical subject'). But there is no such uncertainty with the sentences discussed in this thread. For all of them, the first noun is the syntactic subject.

The definition of passive gets a little complicated for marginal cases, especially in languages that don't look quite like English, but we can define "passives" as variants of "active" sentences, in which a non-subject argument is promoted to subject. Therefore, by definition, passives have as subject what used to be an object, and it is in the normal subject position then. There are some especially marginal constructions in some languages called "passives" that might not be intuitive (and may be controversial). For example, take a look at the APiCS chapter here:
Especially the "Passive without verbal coding" type there, which basically looks like an active sentence, seems somewhat counterintuitive, and then seems to be relying on semantic criteria rather than syntactic criteria (though transitive verbs appearing with just one argument is a hint).

In the end, there are different questions: those of analysis (for which panini's comments that you need to be consistent are very important!) and those of definitions (which are not worth arguing about because definitions are arbitrary and can vary, although that likewise means you cannot find the 'real' definition or make conclusions as such). What matters for both, however, is consistency.


Regarding your point about "parcel" being a subject in some sentences, that is not a standard analysis in any sense. Maybe your intuition relates to the idea of THEME as a thematic role. In some sense, ditransitives are "about" the THEME (hence the name), but beyond that, they are certainly not the subject.


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