The role of animate and inanimate nouns in determining sentence voice


MRC Developmental Psychology Unit, Drayton House, Gordon Street, London WC1


Children aged 6 and 8 years were required to recall a series of sentences, some with an animate actor and an inanimate acted-upon element and some with these relations reversed. Sentences were presented in either active or passive voice. While hearing a sentence the children saw a picture of the situation it described and recall was cued with a picture of either the actor or the acted-upon element of the situation. Pictures of the acted-upon element led to active sentences being recalled as passives more often than did pictures of the actor. There was a strong tendency for passive sentences with animate actor and inanimate acted-upon to be recalled as actives, whereas active sentences with inanimate actor and animate acted-upon tended to be changed to passives in recall. Thus, it appears that in transitive sentences with one animate and one inanimate noun, children prefer to put the animate noun first and this preference affects their choice of sentence voice. The maintenance of this preferred ordering of animate and inanimate nouns may constitute one of the functions of the passive voice in a language.