Italian and English: Passive voice compared

This essay was originally written as A comparative analysis of passive voice constructions in English and Italian in Semester 1 of 2020 for LING3002, Syntax, at the University of Newcastle. It has been reformated and slightly revised for this website.

1 Introduction

The passive voice is a syntactic relationship that foregrounds the undergoer of an
argument and backgrounds the actor, compared to the active voice which does the
opposite. Italian and English both use periphrastic passives, utilising an auxiliary
verb and conjugating the main verb into the past participle form. In terms of
Keenan & Matthew (2007), the canonical passive constructions of both English and
Italian have auxiliaries “of being or becoming”, and exhibit the ambiguous
stative/dynamic superposition mentioned therein (Keenan & Matthew, 2007,
p336). Whereas the dynamic passive constructions of Italian, venire and andare ,
have auxiliaries “of motion” (Keenan & Matthew, p338), and the rimanere passive
construction appears to have an auxiliary “of experiencing” (Keenan & Matthew,
Section 2 will examine how Italian passive constructions are formed, how those
constructions affect argument structure, and compare them to equivalent passive
constructions in English, for those that exist. Section 3 will examine any other
argument structures manipulations in Italian and compare them to passive
constructions. Section 4 will analyse the discourse effects of each of the
constructions provided. Section 5 will act as a summary for the paper.

2 Passive constructions

2.1 Canonical passive constructions

Italian canonical passive constructions are formed by promoting the object to the
subject position, inserting the auxiliary verb [essere] (‘to be’) in the T-position before a past participle. The subject can be demoted to an oblique adjunct, but is
usually deleted (Lepschy & Lepschy, p149).

The canonical passive construction is not commonly used due to its ease of
miscontrusion with the copula. The impersonal construction (§3.1) is generally
preferred except for cases where the actor is either implied by the verb or
intentionally obfuscated (Lepschy & Lepschy, p149).

Figure 1a: Active Declarative
Figure 1b
Figure 2: Passive Declarative w/deleted Actor
Figure 2b
Figure 3a: Passive Declarative w/Actor by-phrase
Figure 3b

This is equivalent to the English canonical passive construction, which is similarly
formed by promoting the object to the subject position, erasing the subject, or
demoting it to an oblique adjunct, and inserting the auxiliary verb [to be] in the

In both English and Italian canonical passive constructions, the UNDERGOER is
expressed as the subject in the SPEC of TP. Both constructions can demote the ACTOR
to an oblique adjunct or suppress it entirely, and both constructions conjugate the
auxiliary verb [be] / [essere] to indicate whether the undergoer is singular or
plural. ACTOR suppression is less common in English, evident by the emphatic use
of the by-phrase (Pullum, 2011)

2.2 Dynamic passive constructions

In addition to the canonical passive construction, Italian has developed dynamic
passive constructions that specify the deictic nature of the event (Giacalone Ramat
& Sansò, 2014; Moccario, 2014), which also serve to clarify past participles that
could otherwise be easily misconstrued as gerund adjectival phrases (Lepschy and
Lepschy, 1988) as in Figure 4. These passive constructions are still formed by
conjugating the main verb into the past participle., but replacing the copula verb
[essere] (‘to be’) with movement verbs [venire] (‘to come’) and [andare] (‘to go’), as
well as the emergent [rimanere] (‘to remain’) (Lepschy and Lepschy, 1988;
Schwarze, 2003 via Narrog & Heine, 2011).

Figure 4a: Stative interpretation of essere polysemy
Figure 5a: Dynamic interpretation of essere polysemy
Figure 4b

In Figure 4, the subject was previously in a state of being broken prior to the utterance. Akin to ‘It was (already) broken when I got here’.


Figure 5b

Figure 5 describes a past event where the subject was caused to break.

English has the same phenomenon, where the past participle is indistinguishable
from the gerund adjective form (e.g. ‘The window was broken’).

Venire passive

The venire passive construction is formed by inserting the auxiliary verb [venire]
into the T-position before a past participle. As with the canonical passive
construction, the ACTOR can be demoted to an oblique adjunct, but is usually deleted
(Lepschy & Lepschy, 1988, p149).

The venire passive construction specifies a goal-oriented (Taylor, 1988 via
Moccario, 2014) change-of-state dynamic (Giacalone Ramat & Sansò, 2014) that
implies an act of volition (Lepschy & Lepschy, 1988, p149). As such, with or without
ACTOR suppression, [venire] cannot be misconstrued for a copula.

Figure 6a: Venire passive w/out actor by-phrase
Figure 7a: Venire passive w/actor by-phrase
Thewindowis beingbroken
Figure 6b
Thewindowis beingbrokenbyhooligans
Figure 7b

The closest English equivalent to specify action or agency would be the passive
progressive, [is] + [being] + past participle. Where ‘The window was broken’ can be
either the passive or a simple copula, ‘The window was being broken’ can only be
understood as an event, as in Figure 6. However, this English construction is explicitly
progressive and so cannot be a true equivalent of the venire construction, which is
not marked with a progressive aspect, but that doesn’t stop the English passive
progressive being used as a translation of the venire construction in relevant
literature (Lepschy & Lepschy, 1988; Giacalone Ramat & Sansò, 2014).

This may be because, whilst Italian has present / gerund participle conjugates that
specify progressive aspect, the Italian simple and imperfect tenses don’t specify
habitual aspect the way they do in English, as can be seen in Figure 8. As such they can and regularly do convey progressive aspect. The same issue is found in the active
voice (e.g. ‘The hooligans break/are breaking the windows’), but the Goal-oriented
nature of [venire] (Taylor, 1988 via Moccario, 2014) makes the more deictically
constrained progressive interpretation more appropriate than the less deictically
constrained habitual interpretation.

Figure 8a: Progressive/Habitual verbal polysemy in the Stative
Ibreak/am breakingthewindows
Figure 8b

Pullum (2011) offers [come] as an alternative auxiliary to [be] for English passive
construction, but the resulting constructions such as his example, “This software
comes pre-installed by the manufacturers
” are stative statements (compare with This
software is pre-installed by the manufacturers
), and so English auxiliary [come] is an
inappropriate alternative to the distinctly non-stative Italian venire. This is in line
with Giacalone Ramat’s (2014) analysis and conclusion that show that the venire
passive originates from a “change-of-state meaning”.

Andare passive

The andare passive construction is formed by inserting the auxiliary verb [andare]
into the T-position before a past participle (Lepschy & Lepschy, 1988, p149).

The andare passive construction has numerous restrictions that the canonical and
venire passive constructions do not have. The ACTOR is always suppressed, and the
obligatory modality varies between perfective and imperfective aspects, however
the andare passive can only be formed in a perfective aspect when used with verbs
that describe loss or waste (Lepschy and Lepschy, 1988; Moccario, 2014), or
otherwise express “seperation or deviation from the origin” (Moccario, 2014, p46).
I will refer to this broad semantic category as separative verbs.

When the clause has a perfective aspect or is formed with a separative verb the
andare construction expresses a pure passive, as in Figure 9. (Moccario, 2014)

Figure 9a: Pure passive Andare construction
ilpaccoè andatosmarrito
Figure 9b

When the clause has an imperfective aspect the andare construction expresses an
obligatory modal passive, as in Figure 10. (Moccario, 2014)

PRO.’this’V.’go’.PRS.3SG V.’finish’.PPT.M.SGP.’by’N.’tomorrow’
Thismust befinishedby tomorrow
Figure 10: Obligatory modal passive Andare construction

When the clause has an imperfect aspect and a separative verb, the andare
construction can express either a pure passive or an obligatory modal passive. The
surrounding context will generally clarify which is intended, but occasionally an
ambiguous statement of this kind can occur (Moccario, 2014), as in the comical example found in Figure 11.

V.’like’.PRS.CND.1SGV.’have’.INFADJ.’all’ART.’the’.DEF.M.PLN.’money’.M.PLCOM.’that’V.’go’.PRS.3PLV.’spend’.PPT.M.PLP.’on’ART.’the’.F.PLN.’Olympic game’.F.PL
(I)would liketo haveallthemoneythatis/must bespentontheOlympic games
Figure 11: Pure passive/obligatory modal passive polysemy in Andare construction

(Peruzzi 1959: 98; English translation from Giacalone Ramat 2000: 131)

In all cases, the andare construction specifies a source-oriented (Taylor, 1988 via
Moccario, 2014) action which implies an accidental or unintentional change of
state (Moccario, 2014). Because of this specification, like the venire construction,
the andare construction, also avoids being misconstrued with the copula as in Figures 12 and 13.

Figure 12a: Stative interpretation of Essere polysemy
Figure 13a: Passive dynamic interpretation of Essere polysemy
ilpaccoè statosmarrito
Figure 12b
ilpaccoè statosmarrito
Figure 13b

In the case of the pure passive andare construction, The English go passive is the
clear equivalent. In the case of the obligatory modals, the construction is
equivalent to the inclusion of English obligatory modal auxiliaries inserted before
the passive (i.e. must, have to, should, ought to).

Rimanere passive

Rimanere also has limited usage as a passive auxiliary (Lepschy & Lepschy, 1988;
Schwarze, 2003 via Narrog & Heine, 2011). It is constructed the same as the rest of
the Italian passives and references a perfective change of state that has occurred, as in Figure 14.

è rimastoferitonel--l’--incidente
(He) wasinjuredintheaccident
Figure 14: Pure passive Rimanere construction

There is not nearly as much literature on the rimanere passive, but Narrog & Heine
(2011) state that it derives “from [a verb] originally meaning ‘remain, stay’”. As
such, it would be classified in terms of Keenan & Matthew (2007) as an auxiliary
“of experiencing”.
There is no obvious English equivalent to the rimanere construction.

3 Other argument structure manipulations

3.1 Impersonal constructions

In lieu of the uncommonly utilised canonical passive, an impersonal si
construction is more commonly used (Lepschy and Lepschy, 1988, p149). The si
construction is formed the same as an active construction, but with an impersonal
pronoun replacing the subject actor (Lepschy and Lepschy, 1988, p149).

Onemakes/is making(constructions)(passive)
Figure 15: Impersonal si construction

Note: Italian Noun Phrases are left-headed, so the adjective comes after the noun, thus “passive constructions” is “construzione passive“.

This, like the equivalent English impersonal one construction, only specifies the
grammatical number of the chosen impersonal pronoun, rather than the
grammatical person of the implied actor (if there is one). This construction is less
common in English than as common in Italian as Lepschy and Lepschy (1988)
appear to indicate. This could be because the impersonal construction is perceived
as hyper-formal and even archaic by English speakers, but without insight into
more of the cultural perceptions surrounding the Italian impersonal si
construction, a comparison cannot be conclusively drawn.

3.2 Prepositional Passive (pseudo passive)

English passive constructions allow for the promotion of the indirect object to the
position of subject. Lepschy & Lepschy (1988) attest that Italian passive
constructions only promote the direct object, so passive sentences like “I was taught
” only appear in Italian as declaratives (i.e. Someone taught me Sanskrit).
However, Vietri (2014) gives a couple of examples of pseudo-passives (p122).

4 Discourse effects

In comparison to the active voice, the canonical passives of Italian and English
both foreground the undergoer and background the actor to a comparable degree.
The inclusion or exclusion of the actor by-phrase changes the degree to which the
actor is backgrounded.

The Italian dynamic passives have opposing effects on the extent to which the
actor is backgrounded. Because the venire passive denotes volition (Lepschy &
Lepschy, 1988, p149; Giacalone Ramat & Sansò, 2014) and so backgrounds the actor
to a lesser degree than the canonical passive, especially with the inclusion of the
actor by-phrase. The andare passive, whilst also clarifying the dynamic nature of
the utterance, implies an accidental or unintentional nature (Mocciaro, 2014, p47)
and so backgrounds the actor to a greater degree than the canonical passive,
especially given the lack of any grammatical actor by-phrase.

The rimanere passive construction, which focuses on the sustained experience of
the undergoer (Schwarze, 2003 via Narrog & Heine, 2011), significantly
foregrounds the undergoer.

The impersonal si construction, because it marks for the grammatical number of
the chosen impersonal pronoun instead of a specified actor, foregrounds the
undergoer to a less significant degree than the simple passive construction.

5 Summary

Italian has a diverse range of passive and passive-equivalent structures with a
complex matrix of application. The canonical passive and impersonal construction
express stative arguments that equally foreground the undergoer and background
the actor. The dynamic passives express opposing deictic arguments, varying the
backgrounding of the actor widely. Andare can express obligatory modality.
Rimanere appears to express a contained state resulting from an event. Both venire
and andare show long processes of grammaticalisation and rimanere appears to
show the beginnings of that process.


ACC – Accusative Case

ADJ – Adjective

ART – Article

CND – Conditional

DEF – Definite

IMP – Imperfective

INF – Infinitive

F – Feminine

M – Masculine

N – Noun

NOM – Nominative

NP – Near-Past

P – Preposition

PL – Plural

PPT – Past Participle

PRO – Pronoun

PRS – Present Tense

SG – Singular

SPEC – Specifier Position

T – Tense

TP – Tense Phrase

V – Verb

1SG – 1st Person Singular

3SG – 3rd Person Singular

3PL – 3rd Person Plural


Keenan, E. L., & Dryer, M. S. (2007). Passive in the world’s Languages. In Shopen
(Ed.) Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Volume One: Clause Structure (2nd
ed. pp. 325-361). Cambridge University Press.

Lepschy, A. L., & Lepschy, G. C. (1988). The Italian Language Today (2nd ed.).
Rowman & Littlefield.

Mocciaro, E. (2014). Passive in motion: the Early Italian auxiliary andare (‘to go’).
Trends in Linguistic Studies and Monographs. 272, 45-68.

Narrog, H., & Heine, B. (2011) The Oxford handbook of grammaticalization. Oxford
University Press: Oxford.

Pullum, G. K. (2011, January 24). The passive in English. Language Log.

Ramat, A. G. & Sansò, A. (2014). Venire (‘come’) as a passive auxiliary in Italian.
Trends in Linguistic Studies and Monographs. 272, 21-44.

Schwarz, C. (2003). ‘“Bleiben” und “werden”: zur Polysemie von it. rimanere’. in A.
Blank (Ed.), Kognitive romanische Onomasiologie und Semasiologie (pp. 19-32).

Taylor, K. (1988). We’ve got you coming and going. Linguistics and Philosophy 11(4),
493–513. Springer

Vietri, S. (2014). Idiomatic Constructions in Italian: A Lexicon-Grammar approach.
John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Feature Image by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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