Please consider this example sentence:

Karen spoke rudely to the manager.

Should the corresponding sentence rearranged into the passive be:

  1. The manager was spoken rudely to by Karen.
  2. The manager was spoken to rudely by Karen.
  3. The manager was rudely spoken to by Karen.
  4. The manager was spoken to by Karen rudely.

Are any of those wrong answers, or are they all of them right answers? Are there other valid word orders for this?

What makes the wrong ones wrong, if there are indeed any that are wrong?

If more than one can be considered right, do those all mean the same thing and are they all equally common? Which would a native speaker use? Do any sound funny?

Is it even right to create a passive out of a sentence whose verb lacks a direct object, one that has only a prepositional object instead like this case?

  • 2
    Passive has nothing to do with adverb placement, and adverbs have nothing to do with passive transformations. So the answer is that you should position an adverb according to adverb position rules, which allow all of the passive sentences you give. – John Lawler Jul 6 '19 at 14:44
  • 1
    As for the final question, speak to, like look at or listen to, is effectively a transitive verb, and may be passivized. – John Lawler Jul 6 '19 at 14:46
  • The best adverb placement is often determined by the sound of the words. For example, rudely and sharply are similar in meaning here, but the presence of the « s » and « sh » sounds makes it easier to say spoken to sharply as opposed to sharply spoken to. All of your examples are grammatically correct, but 2 and 3 are the most natural sounding. With 3, it’s easier for the speaker to put stress on rudely, so to my ears it sounds like a stronger statement about Karen’s rudeness. Example 2 is more neutral. – Global Charm Jul 6 '19 at 16:31

Starting with the facts of the matter, I find your version 3 to sound best, 2 almost as good, 1 and 4 rather awkward.

Turning to theory, Lawler's first comment is probably inspired by the treatment in McCawley's "Syntactic Phenomena" text, where the adverb "rudely" would be from a higher clause than the "speak to" clause -- something along the lines of "The manner in which [S Karen spoke to the manager] was rude" -- and the optional Passive Transformation applies or not to the embedded clause "[S Karen spoke to the manager]". Whether or not the Passive is applicable cannot depend on anything outside that clause, according to the cyclic assumption of TG, and so it can't depend on whether the manner adverb "rudely" is present.

But all that tells us is that the placement of "rudely" will not depend on whether a clause is a passive, but rather on the structure of "the manager was spoken to by Karen", whatever that structure is.

Now, "rudely" is a manner adverb which, McCawley argues, is a V-bar modifier, and the most natural place for any modifier is immediately before or immediately after the constituent it modifies (though there are many exceptions to this general principle). The passive has a V-bar "spoken to", and placing the adverb immediately before that gives us your version 3 (which sounds best, to me).

I don't know where the passive by-phrase fits into a passive sentence (this is discussed by McCawley), but if here the "by Karen" is a modifier of the V-bar "spoken to", that puts the adverb immediately before or immediately after "by Karen", which gives us your versions 2 and 4.

I don't see how to get your version 1.

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  • I'm very grateful for the help! – Raven Jul 7 '19 at 3:50

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