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Adjective or verb passive form??

In the sentence

  • We teach our children that everyone is entitled to respect and dignity

is 'entitled' more likely an adjective or a verb?

A similar question appeared in another sentence:

  • Had Mr. Morgan actually received the right medical care or even been directed to a doctor who could specifically give him that care, psychiatric or otherwise, his current state would most likely have been alleviated.

My question here is whether the word 'alleviated'is more likely an adjective or a verb.

I explained to my student that in both cases, passive voice is involved. Therefore, both words are verbs. She doesn't seem very convinced. I'm wondering if anyone could provide a better explanation, especially for the word 'alleviated'. Thanks!

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5 Answers 5

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There are two tests that an adjective should pass.

First, modification by very and pretty. This test may not be applicable in all cases, but where variations in degree are possible, it's a pretty good one.

*His current state would most likely have been very/pretty alleviated.

Second, use as a predicative complement in a complex-intransitive or complex-transitive clause (your student may know these as 'linking verb' constructions).

?His state remains alleviated.

*The treatment made his (current) state alleviated.

Note that the passive is possible with some verbs of this sort if we insert a be verb. But, then we'd be using a different construction.

His state seems to have been alleviated.

For alleviated, both tests lean pretty heavily in favor of a verb. But, sometimes the tests are inconclusive and it's ambiguous whether the word in question is an adjective or a past participle.

Her leg was broken. [adjective or past participle?]

In these cases it's useful to ask whether the context indicates a state or an event.

Her leg was (*pretty) broken in a car accident. [past participle]

Her leg was (pretty) broken last time I saw her. [adjective]

There are, of course, stative interpretations of verbs as well, so this is not always useful.

When it comes to entitled as a single word, it could go either way. However, when a to... phrase is added it loses the ability to be modified by very. So in the context given it's probably best considered a verb.

Everyone is very entitled.

*Everyone is very entitled to respect and dignity.

The two sentences above, similar to many adjective / past-participle contrasts, also have a difference in definition for entitled - spoiled vs giving a rightful claim to possession, privilege, etc.

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  • 1
    +1 Well stated, and good tests. Participles are often made into adjectives and the change proceeds by minuscule steps, with the whole procedure taking centuries in some cases, and mere years in others. Since there are a lot of uses for participles in English, there are a lot of constructions they appear in; I would consider be entitled to to be optionally parseable as a compound transitive verb (though one that does not passivize), and in fixed phrases parts of speech are often unrecognizable. Feb 7 at 14:26
  • Wow, impressive answers! I like the idea of bringing in context to decide if a past participle is a verb or an adjective. The two tests for adjectives are pretty useful too. Thanks a lot, DW256.
    – Qiandi Liu
    Feb 7 at 18:22
  • I'm surprised that anyone would consider them adjectives. As you say, they fail the usual tests. I usually test with "found" in complex-transitive clauses (* I found it entitled) and "become" in complex-intransitives (* He became alleviated). Both ungrammatical, of course.
    – BillJ
    Feb 7 at 18:29
  • The students were very alleviated to hear the news.
    – Lambie
    Feb 7 at 18:43
  • The OED has an entry for allieviated (adj.) with the citations "Cases of alleviated back pain..have been reported" and "Lee finished his letter..seemingly in an alleviated mood."
    – DjinTonic
    Feb 7 at 18:52
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DW256 mentions several tests, but it seems to me that the most obvious test to see whether something is in the passive voice is to try to put it in active voice.

Does "We teach our children that someone has entitled everyone to respect and dignity" match the meaning of the original? Not really.

Does "Had Mr. Morgan actually received the right medical care or even been directed to a doctor who could specifically give him that care, psychiatric or otherwise, those interventions would most likely have alleviated his current state."? This does look close to the original meaning.

So there's a strong case for "entitled" being an adjective and "alleviated" being passive voice.

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  • :) Quick, easy, and to the point. Brilliant idea! Thanks.
    – Qiandi Liu
    Feb 7 at 18:30
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    'Someone' rarely entitles a person to 'something', rather an agreement, contract, law, etc. entitles: We teach our children that our laws have entitled everyone to respect and dignity.
    – DW256
    Feb 8 at 4:17
  • @DW256 When a law entitles someone to something, we can also say that the legislators (who passed the law) entitled them.
    – Barmar
    Feb 8 at 6:11
  • E.g. "Democrats like to entitle people with handouts."
    – Barmar
    Feb 8 at 6:12
  • @Barmar Those are vanishingly rare. Besides, the point is that the example given is awkward; were the subject replaced with something more commonly said to entitle people to something, it would agree with the original sense of the asker's passive construction just fine.
    – DW256
    Feb 8 at 6:28
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(1) In the first example, 'to' is obviously the preposition (followed by the coordinated nouns 'respect' and 'dignity') and not the infinitive-marker (as in say 'She is entitled to resit her exams in August).

I'd argue 'be entitled to + NP' mirrors

  • the durative depictive seen in 'be fond of [+ NP]' and 'be liable to [+ NP]' (as in 'Drivers not giving way to pedestrians crossing or about to cross a road the drivers are turning left into are now liable to a fine')

rather than

  • the dynamic passive seen in say 'be elected to [+ NP]' (from say active They elect/elected him to the position of General Secretary)

or even

  • the durative passive 'be preferred to [+ NP]' (active say We prefer X to Y).

'Liable' in the chosen comparator is clearly an adjective rather than a verb (if one is going to analyse like this. I'd treat 'be liable to' / 'be entitled to' as fixed expressions and not bother with internal POS assignation.)

........................

(2) An 'alleviated state' sounds most unusual, and there aren't many hits on a Google search. Then again, 'His condition would have been alleviated' sounds much more idiomatic. We don't usually say 'Her state has improved' in a hospital etc setting.

But the dynamic passive is the only plausible reading here (' ... his current state would most likely have been alleviated [by this course of action]').

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    Well said, Edwin! The frequency check on Google search is an ingenious idea. It's particularly useful for me who is a second language speaker of English. I have intuitions of what sounds right and what doesn't, but I'm not confident about that :D Frequency check is a more reliable solution. Thank you very much.
    – Qiandi Liu
    Feb 7 at 18:29
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You seem to be asking about part of speech, which is a property that dictionaries commonly assign to words.

Most dictionaries contain entries for the verbs "entitle" and "alleviate" with past participle forms "entitled" and "alleviated". In your example sentences, each of those words is a dependent of "to be"; that syntax is typical for past participles of transitive verbs. (I think that that is what you mean by "passive voice".) Thus, we can say that both words are verbs in past participle form.

However, some past participles are used so often to describe nominals that dictionaries give them separate entries as adjectives. ("Married" and "frozen" are common examples.) Merriam-Webster does, in fact, list "entitled" (but not "alleviated") as an adjective. Therefore, you could describe that word as an adjective, too.*

Please note that a word's part of speech is not necessarily the same as its function. If you're asking about whether the words function adjectivally, then that is another issue.

*I looked through a few online dictionaries and did not find "alleviated" listed as an adjective. However, dictionary.com did list "unalleviated" adjective. I'm still scratching my head about that.

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  • "Entitled" and "alleviated" can only be verbs since they fail the tests for adjectivehood. One obvious and fairly reliable test is to see if the words can be modified by "very", which clearly they can't. They are verbs.
    – BillJ
    Feb 7 at 18:38
  • @BillJ As others point out on this page, the "very" test is far from definite; many exceptions exist. And see Edwin Ashworth's answer suggesting that "entitled" may be considered an adjective (in parallel to "liable"). Feb 7 at 22:09
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Many words ending in -ed can be either verbs or adjectives, and it is often difficult to distinguish these two uses. Entitled and alleviated can be used either way. Which part of speech they belong to in your example may not be definitely determinable.

Passing the "very" test shows that a word is an adjective, but failing it doesn't show that the word isn't. So the "very" test can't prove that something is a verb.

I find it acceptable to use "entitled to respect and dignity" as the complement of the verb seem. Likewise, i think can use "stop being" in a context like "people who make mistakes do not stop being entitled to respect and dignity".

Example from someone online who isn't me:

  • But does one automatically become entitled to respect because they have been here for a long time? Respect is earned, it's not automatic. (kajunkruzer #70 · Feb 26, 2009, General MC Message Board, www.vtxoa.com)

Likewise, examples of "become alleviated" are not nonexistent:

The ability to use a phrase headed by an -ed word as the complement of a verb like these is commonly interpreted as a sign that the -ed word is an adjective.

For longer discussion see the answers to Is "running" a gerund or a participial adjective?.

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  • And failing the complex-intransitive / complex transitive tests show the words in question to be verbs.
    – BillJ
    Feb 7 at 19:03

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