present = conditional perfect

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat May 19 18:19:23 UTC 2007

On May 16, 2007, at 7:10 AM, Jon Lighter wrote:

> ... My obviously standard NYC dialect employs passive-auxiliary
> "get" and "is" fairly interchangeably, though "get" is less formal.

well, fairly interchangeably isn't fully interchangeably.  dwight
bolinger claimed that every difference in form is associated with a
difference in meaning; i haven't been willing to go all  the way down
that road with dwight, but i've claimed that differences in form are
very rarely matters of free variation or mere stylistic differences.
typically, though there are many contexts in which two variants are
apparently interchangeable, there are also contexts in which the
variants differ in meaning or discourse function.

the "get" passive and the "be" passive have been much studied.
there's a good treatment in CGEL, pp. 1440-3.  i'll summarize some of
the differences in my own terms:

1.  the "get" passive is higher in 'affectedness', the degree to
which the referent of the passive subject is affected by the event --
usually adversely, but sometimes positively (adversative and
benefactive passives).

2.  the "get" passive is higher in 'contributory agentivity', the
(partial) responsibility of someone not the actual agent in the event
-- usually the referent of the passive subject -- in the event.

(#1 and #2 together result in a favoring of human subjects in "get"

3.  the "get" passive is lower in 'central agentivity'; the
responsibility of an actual agent is backgrounded.  as a result,
"get" passives with agent expressed are even rarer than "be" passives
with agent expressed (which are not especially frequent).

4.  the "get" passive implicates not only affectedness of the
referent of the passive subject, but *change* in it.  "I got
impressed by the painting" takes an awful lot of contextualization to

sentences in which the "get" passive is disfavored on all four
factors are decidedly odd:

   ?? The Veeblefetzer got discovered in 1953 by Alfred E. Newman.
   ok  The Veeblefetzer was discovered in 1953 by Alfred E. Newman.

i have no doubt that there's variation on the strength of these (and
possibly other) factors, but i don't think there's anybody for whom
the two passives are truly interchangeable across the board.


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