Passive aggressive

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Anne Henochowicz, "Passive-Aggressive: Expressing misfortune, and resistance, in Mandarin", LA Review of Books, 10/23/2018:

Strunk and White’s classic textbook Elements of Style taught us to avoid the passive voice in our writing. Our verbs should take action, not a back seat, whenever possible. (This advice is not universally accepted.) In Mandarin, however, the passive voice packs a real punch. When something is done to you, the passive evokes your great misfortune.

Say the dog ate your homework. In the active voice, this turn of events doesn’t seem to bother you all that much:

Gǒu gōngkè chī diào le
功課 吃掉
(preposition indicating disposal)
homework eat up le
(particle indicating completion)

The dog ate the homework.

But if you want to beg your teacher for mercy, let him know that this is a tragedy:

Gōngkè bèi gǒu chī diào le
功課 吃掉
Homework bèi dog eat up le

Note that bèi is not actually a verb, but a type of preposition called a coverb.

The bèi sentence construction is also known as the “adversative passive,” since it expresses the adversity of the situation at hand.

Henochowicz goes on to discuss uses of the adversative passive in social commentary:

The snark quickly spread: when an apparatchik claimed to speak on behalf of the people, the people had “been represented” (bèi dàibiǎo 被代表); when workers were forced to donate to the Sichuan Earthquake relief effort, they had “been donatified” (bèi juānkuǎn 被捐款). And when the net nannies scrubbed your criticism from a web forum, you invoked President Hu Jintao’s doctrine of the “harmonious society” – your post had been “harmonized” (bèi héxié 被和諧). Perry Link and Xiao Qiang call this new grammatical form the “involuntary passive,” indicating that the subject has no choice in the matter at hand.


  1. Paul M said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 7:47 am

    Yes, there’s something there…

    Chinese often speak in opposites. When they boast, it’s because they face difficulties. And when a fellow tells you he’s not doing well, you can assume that he’s taking it in.

    Twenty years ago, on a slow train to the north east, I met a pair of tattooed, criminal-looking chaps. I asked one what he did for a living and he popped that “bei” construction. “Others are harmed by me,” he said, in an understated way that convinced me of his dangerousness.

  2. Guan Yang said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 8:16 am

    Language Log has previously reported on “was suicided” (被自杀了).

  3. Kyle B said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 8:38 am

    Japanese also has a construction like this for the passive. I have heard it on shows where police officers talk about criminals escaping. 犯人に逃げられました(はんにん に にげられました)(hannin ni nigeraremashita) "The criminal got away." Where the passive form of the verb 逃げる(にげる)(nigeru) indicates it was very undesirable. It is sometimes even called the "suffering passive". Google translate seems to do an especially poor job of translating these sentences. It gives "I was able to escape to the criminal" for the above sentence.

  4. Bloix said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 9:07 am

    Is this true passive voice or is it an inverted object-subject order? When Sinatra sang, "Regrets, I've had a few," he used active voice. Dr Suess, "Oh, the places you'll go!", Tim O'Brien, "The things they carried" – active voice. So word order isn't determinative.

    I would hazard the (totally uninformed) proposition that for something to be in passive voice you have to be able to omit the noun that would be the subject in the active construction. Do the experts agree? "The homework was eaten by the dog" but also "the homework was eaten." Can you do that in the Chinese? And does it matter?

  5. Rube said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    @Paul M: “Others are harmed by me,” is a truly great line for a thug in any language, isn't it? I can seen Samuel L. Jackson saying it in a Tarantino movie, and it just dripping with danger.

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 9:46 am

    Yes you can omit the agent leaving "patient BEI V", exploited in the humorous usages above… you can also have a syntactic object, thus "patient BEI (agent) V O", e.g., 阿润被(警察)搜包 lit. "Arun BEI (police) search bag" (for which we might say "Arun had/got his bag searched by the police" in English.) It seems OK to call BEI constructions "passive" in the sense that they use patient as syntactic subject — they are not strictly associated with "adversative" construals but that tendency seems clear.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    Though for whatever reason "wo BEI gou chi diao gongke le" 我被狗吃掉功课了 lit. I BEI dog eat up homework LE seems a bridge too far :D

  8. Weitong said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 10:32 am

    I think of activists and petitioners being "traveled" ("被旅游") during the 两会 every year.

  9. Chris Button said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    I think there is a focusing element going on here where English is more reliant on intonation. The default "dog ate homework" sentence order of Chinese that parallels English has been shifted.

    – The word "ba" indicates that "homework" is a known entity perhaps in response to a question about where the speaker's homework is. In English the pitch would be neutral low level on "homework" since repeated information is not accented with the nuclear falling tone shifting from "homework" to "dog" (or even possibly "ate" depending on context).

    – The word "bei" puts the focus squarely on the "dog" with the notion of adversity perhaps stemming from this being out of the speaker's control. In English the falling tone would occur on "dog" which if alternatively used in a passive construction "by the dog" would allow "dog" to occur in the default phrase final position to receive the falling contour without a shift in intonational focus.

  10. Yuval said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 11:34 am

    Following up on Guan Yang's link, there's a similar Hebrew construction as well.

  11. Anne Henochowicz said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 11:45 am

    @Bloix: You're right that the passive in Mandarin doesn't work quite like it does in English. Many passive expressions in English are active in Mandarin. For example, the English sentence "This book was published last year" becomes Zhè běn shū qùnián chūbǎn le 这本书去年出版了 (lit. this book last year published), where chūbǎn 出版 ("publish") is an active verb.

    Mandarin makes ample use of the topic-comment sentence structure, like Sinatra's "Regrets, I've had a few." The topic can be the subject or object of a sentence; in the sentence about the book above, the subject is omitted entirely. Mandarin has SVO sentence order, just like English.

    You can also omit the subject in bèi 被 constructions: the homework was eaten, the petitioners were "traveled," etc. (h/t @Weitong)

  12. Luke said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    Grammaticalized "voluntold", I like it.

  13. Crystal said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    The English get-passive also tends to be used with adversative meaning, although this isn't the only reason it's used.

  14. NOEL HUNT said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

    @Anne Henochowicz: translating Zhè běn shū qùnián chūbǎn le 这本书去年出版了 as a passive in English is acceptable, but Chinese, like Japanese, allows for null subjects and objects; in this case the empty subject slot is understood to refer to a publisher (presumably) – '(As for) this book, [someone] has published [it]'. Note the null object.

    Probably, 'Regrets, I've had a few' should be seen as an example of 'left dislocation' where an NP has been moved to the left periphery of the tree. In this case, the object to the topic position. The reason for looking at it like this is that topics in English are distinguished structures, used for emphasis of some kind. I think topics in Japanese and Chinese have more the function of 'backgrounding' some item of discourse.

  15. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

    In isolation "这本书去年出版了" seems odd; for such a simple statement ("This book was published last year") a construction like "这本书是去年出版的" is far more apt in my opinion. It is true that situations which lend themselves to English passives will often not use BEI or the like, but the best Mandarin parallels in such cases aren't all "active" in some straightforward sense.

  16. Bathrobe said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 1:28 am

    But wouldn't 我被狗给吃掉功课了 Wǒ bèi gǒu gěi chī diào gōngkè le be ok?

  17. rosie said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 2:02 am

    @Bloix Your examples don't help your argument. For example, "The things they carried" isn't even a clause. It's a noun-phrase consisting of a head noun followed by a relative clause.

  18. J Silk said,

    October 26, 2018 @ 3:38 am

    @ Kyle B
    In the expression 犯人に逃げられました, the "subject" is the police officer: he is the victim of (suffering from) the fact that the criminal escaped. I wonder if in this case we might not render it "The crook got away on me" ("from me" is also perhaps ok, but the point is that the speaker, either on behalf of himself or of the police department, suffers as a result.).
    How about: 宿題は犬に食べられました ? How close is that to the Chinese expression? One thing that occurs to me: is the victim here the homework, or is it the speaker whose homework was eaten? I would tend toward the former in this case…

  19. Philip Spaelti said,

    October 28, 2018 @ 4:24 am

    A similar construction in English is "I had my wallet stolen."

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