Why is the second sentence below marked as being ungrammatical?

  1. Ed wanted a new CD player.
  2. ✲ A new CD player was wanted by Ed.

                        —Bas Aarts, English Syntax and Argumentation

Although the second sentence is marked as an ungrammatical one, it seems to make sense. Why does the author mark it as being ungrammatical?

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    The passive tense is widely disliked for no good reason. It is not ungrammatical. There is a common myth, taught in many American schools, that the passive tense is bad style. This is incorrect; overuse of the passive tense can be bad style, and indeed in nearly all contexts (1) should be preferred to (2). But (2) is completely grammatical. – Peter Shor Mar 24 '13 at 14:18
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    As Peter says, it's not formally ungrammatical (it follows the rules). Except you just don't hear 'want' used in the passive. It's not idiomatic English. – Mitch Mar 24 '13 at 14:42
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    "Making sense" has nothing to do with grammaticality. Nonsensical things can be grammatical and perfectly sensible propositions can be ungrammatical. And didn't I warn you that Bas is not an ideal English textbook? – John Lawler Mar 24 '13 at 15:03
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    Oh, and Passive isn't a tense; in English it's a construction, and in Latin it was a voice. But English doesn't have paradigmatic voice. – John Lawler Mar 24 '13 at 16:55
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    @Mitch: Ed was wanted by the law (but I had a good alibi). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 '13 at 22:15

In his ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’, Aarts is less dogmatic, commenting that ‘not all verbs allow passivization to the same extent’, and gives as an example Tony likes films with lots of gratuitous violence. Certainly, Films with lots of gratuitous violence are liked by Tony is at best odd.

‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ includes want and like in a list of verbs that occur less than 2% of the time, with the comment 'Although these verbs are possible as passives, they simply are not used in the passive very often.'

I am not hostile to the passive itself, but I cannot imagine circumstances in which I would want to use it to describe Ed’s desire for a new CD player. Even if it is grammatical, the passive use of verbs that are almost always used only in active constructions is probably best avoided, unless there is some very good reason for it.

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    "John Doe is wanted by the police" is a quite common usage in the U.S. – Peter Shor Mar 24 '13 at 16:51
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    @Peter Shor. In the UK too, but the sense is sought or required rather than desired. – Barrie England Mar 24 '13 at 17:02
  • @Barrie England: Having been steeped lately in the art of writing like a lawyer, I agree with you. Interestingly--and this is not a criticism, just an observation, instead of saying "Even if it is grammatical, the passive use of verbs that are almost always used only in active constructions is probably best avoided, unless there is some very good reason for it," why did you not use the active voice and say "You should probably use active-construction verbs rather than passive, even if the latter are grammatical, unless you have a good reason to do so"? – rhetorician Mar 24 '13 at 17:12
  • @rhetorician. Because I didn't want to sound dictatorial. – Barrie England Mar 24 '13 at 17:16
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    @BarrieEngland: That's good enough for me! – rhetorician Mar 24 '13 at 17:35

An article addressing passivisation by Monique De Mattia-Viviès appears at www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/res/article/download/4578/3914 . It claims that famous grammars (ACGEL, CGEL) postulate 'a closed category of verbs or verbal phrases, which are most of the time transitive verbs used statively, or stative verbs,which do not occur in the passive':

resemble/look like/take after someone ; suit/fit/become ; have /possess/lack ; number/hold ; mean ; mind ; boast ; befall ; fail (let down) ; cost/weigh ; marry/meet ; agree with.

As the following examples show, some senses do permit passivisation; 'A good time was had by all' seems, rather, a unique perverse usage:

  1.  John has a book. *A book is had (by John).     
      (?)They had me again. I’ve been had again.
      We / they all had a good time. A good time was had by all.
      We had a ball / field day. *A ball / field day was had by us.

  2.  The suit fits me. *I’m fitted by this suit.     
      The tailor fitted me. I was fitted by the tailor.

They do not list want or like, which Longman, as Barrie points out, says 'do allow passivisation but are rarely used in the passive'. This view is also stated (ie the warning-off is put in a less proscriptive way than in ES&A) by Aarts himself here (57b marked ?* rather than a straight * - though Aarts does seem to toughen his stance in the next comment he makes):

Restrictions on Passivization "Not all verbs allow passivization to the same extent, as (57) shows.

(57) Tony likes films with lots of gratuitous violence. >?*Films with lots of gratuitous violence are liked (by Tony).

The NP following the verb in the active version of (57) cannot become the Subject of a passive clause. The same is true for the postverbal NP in (58) and (59), which contain the verbs suit and cost:

(58) That beret does not suit you, you know. >*You are not suited by that beret, you know.

(59) Your private sight test costs £9. >*£9 is cost by your private eye test.

Note also that certain types of Direct Object, for example NPs headed by reflexive pronouns, cannot become the Subjects of passive clauses.

(60) He scarcely knew himself. >*Himself was scarcely known by him."

(Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

  • A good time was had by all is permissible, I suppose, because have there has the sense of experience, rather than possess. – Barrie England Mar 24 '13 at 16:43
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    No - that's why I included the apparently virtually synonymous but unacceptable *A ball / field day was had by us. It's idiosyncratic. An extragrammatical idiom. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 '13 at 16:46
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    Ah yes, I see. The OED’s earliest citation is dated 1865. Perhaps it started as a facetious use. – Barrie England Mar 24 '13 at 16:57
  • By drunken revellers? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 24 '13 at 22:13

The structure of the sentence is grammatically sound, but the use of the word wanted is inappropriate and incongruent to the context.

For example, the use of the word teleported is inappropriate in the following context,

He is teleported to work every morning by city public transportation.

One might, thro maverick reasoning, wish to believe that teleporting is synonymous to transporting. However, there is already an established sci-fi understanding of the word teleport.

There is already an established understanding of the participle use of wanted.

  • He is a wanted man.
  • He is wanted by police.
  • He is on the wanted list.

The following would be more acceptable,

A new CD player was desired by Ed.

However, even such passive use is still imprecise use of language.

There are a number of gurus here who believe that logic integrity in the structure of language is less required today than it had been 40 years ago. Nowadays, we are allowed to start a sentence with but/because or terminate a phrase with a hung preposition - but I do insist that the essence of proper English grammar lies in its logical integrity, especially in business and scientific use.

It is my bigoted perception that the logical precision that the English language requires has so far allowed this beautiful romantic language to continue to be the prominent international language. It is the subtle breach of logic in its structure that presents the romanticism and humour. Without those principles of logical integrity, otherwise inappropriate use would carry no significance and hence elicit no pleasure of rebelliousness.

Let me reason that the use of wanted/desired in such a context is illogical and arithmetically inaccurate.

The following would be precise use

A particular new CD player was desired by Ed.
Mary was desired by Ed.
The obsolescence of the CD player was desired by Ed.
Having new CD players for his children was desired by Ed.

IMO, the passive subject for the words desired/wanted should normally be a singleton. IOW, the verb desired normally has an enclosed transitivity/valency. FYI, the valency of an intransitive verb is one, with zero valency used on any target objects. Under rare circumstances, you might get away with breaching that statistical norm.

Note that Having new CD players is a singleton verbial phrase.

However, words such as required do not require their passive subjects to be singletons.

New brushes are required by Ed, for the painting job.

The following uses seem to have successfully breached the singleton norm

Beautiful women and fast cars were desired by Ed.
New CD players were desired by Ed.

But, IMO, they actually convey a singleton cause pursued by Ed. Compare with

Beautiful women and fast cars were required by Ed.
New CD players were required by Ed.

Desired encloses a definite or specific set of transitive subjects. Whereas, Required seems to transcend over an indefinite/infinite scope or spread of subjects, without placing an enclosure on the set of its targets.

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