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  1. #1
    Englishlanguage is offline Member
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    burn down vs. be burnt down

    The house burnt down
    The house was burnt down

    Is there any difference between the sentences above?
    I think both are correct but which would sound more natural?
    Thank you

  2. #2
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down


    The house burnt down sounds more natural.

    The house (was)burnt down.

    The word WAS can be left out!

  3. #3
    Englishlanguage is offline Member
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Here are some google results:

    The house was burnt down 3670 results
    The house burnt down 970 results

    but

    The house was burned down 8820 results
    The house burned down 27300

    Since burnt is typically BE and burned is more common in AE, perhaps The house was burnt down sounds more natural in BE and The house burned down sounds better in AE.
    But it's just a supposition. Anyway, I'm getting more and more curious to know whether my theory is correct or not.

    P.s: Of course, BE stands for British English and AE means American English.
    Last edited by Englishlanguage; 18-Jul-2007 at 10:40.

  4. #4
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    They are different in voice.

    Passive voice: The house was burnt down (by Max).
    Active voice: Max burnt down the house / Max burnt the house down.
    Middle voice: The house burns down. <present tense>
    Ergative: The house burnt down. <past tense>

    ___________________________________


    In English middle voice is used to mean the construction where the patient is the subject of an intransitive but active verb. Compare:
    Active: John burns down the house.
    Passive: The house is burnt down (by John).
    Middle: The house burns down.
    The agent is optional in the passive: The house is burnt down or The house is burnt down by John. The agent role is assigned to a prepositional phrase. But the middle has no agent slot at all. You can't say *The house burns down by John. Moreover, you can't use qualifiers that focus attention on the agent's role either:
    John burns down the house deliberately.
    The house is burnt down deliberately.
    (ungrammatical): *The house burns down deliberately.
    John burns down the house for the insurance money.
    The house is burnt down for the insurance money.
    (ungrammatical): *The house burns down for the insurance money.
    The English middle is therefore often used in situations where there is no agent, as opposed to an unknown agent, which may be indicated by the passive: Paint was smeared all over the walls (no agent expressed but we know someone did it), cf. This paint smears easily (not talking about any particular act of smearing). Read more here...


    Last edited by Casiopea; 19-Jul-2007 at 13:20.

  5. #5
    Englishlanguage is offline Member
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Quote Originally Posted by Casiopea View Post
    They are different in voice.

    Passive voice: The house was burnt down (by Max).
    Active voice: Max burnt down the house / Max burnt the house down.
    Middle voice: The house burnt down.

    ___________________________________


    In English middle voice is used to mean the construction where the patient is the subject of an intransitive but active verb. Compare:
    Active: John burns down the house.
    Passive: The house is burnt down (by John).
    Middle: The house burns down.
    The agent is optional in the passive: The house is burnt down or The house is burnt down by John. The agent role is assigned to a prepositional phrase. But the middle has no agent slot at all. You can't say *The house burns down by John. Moreover, you can't use qualifiers that focus attention on the agent's role either:
    John burns down the house deliberately.
    The house is burnt down deliberately.
    (ungrammatical): *The house burns down deliberately.
    John burns down the house for the insurance money.
    The house is burnt down for the insurance money.
    (ungrammatical): *The house burns down for the insurance money.
    The English middle is therefore often used in situations where there is no agent, as opposed to an unknown agent, which may be indicated by the passive: Paint was smeared all over the walls (no agent expressed but we know someone did it), cf. This paint smears easily (not talking about any particular act of smearing). Read more here...

    Thank you Caiopea
    Having read, I think The house burnt down would be more common if the person who has set the house on fire is unknown; am I right?
    Can I say that The house was burnt down has the same meaning of The house burnt down?
    Is there any reason for the above google results?
    Last edited by Englishlanguage; 18-Jul-2007 at 10:40.

  6. #6
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Quote Originally Posted by Englishlanguage View Post
    Having read, I think The house burnt down would be more common if the person who has set the house on fire is unknown; am I right?
    Yes, and no. If the agent is unknown but important, then a passive construct would express that better than an ergative one (Please see my edit in post #4. The house burnt down (past tense) is an ergative construct, and doesn't house a middle voice verb.) If, however, the agent doesn't factor into the meaning at all, then an ergative construct would work better than a passive one. (There's more on this below.)

    Quote Originally Posted by Englishlanguage
    Can I say that The house was burnt down has the same meaning of The house burnt down?
    They're different, but first let's show how they are similar.

    Passive, ergative, and middle constructs make the verb's object topic:

    Verb's object is topic
    Passive: The house is burnt down (by someone).
    Ergative: The house burnt down.
    Middle: The house burns down.

    But ergative and middle constructs change the the verb's transitivity:

    Transitive
    Passive: The house was burnt down (by someone).

    Intransitive
    Ergative: The house burnt down.
    Middle: The house burns down (as the crowd looks on).

    In the second and third examples, the phrasal verbs burnt down (past tense, ergative) and burns down (present tense, middle) are used intransitively, without naming the agent (the doer) of the action. The agent is never present; it never figures into the semantics, "no agent can plausibly be supplied. (Source)." On the other hand, with passive sentences the agent (the doer of the act) is always present, even if it's left unstated. (Note, the symbol * means ungrammatical.)

    Passive: The house was burnt down (by...).
    Ergative: The house burnt down (*by...)

    So, in short, those two sentences are semantically different. Ergative constructs place focus on the description of the event, whereas passive constructs involve a doer, an agent, albeit a "passive"--non-paticipatory--doer, but nonetheless a doer is indeed present and factors into the semantics.

    Quote Originally Posted by Englishlanguage
    Is there any reason for the above google results?
    It's hard to tell. Don't let the numbers fool you! We don't know how many of those hits are nested and/or reduplicated; moreover, the spelling burnt isn't a BrE thing; AmE writers use it as well. Conversely, the same holds true for the spelling burned; Some BrE writers use it.

    What I can tell you--spellings aside, and just looking at the number in total--is that ergative burnt/ed down appears to be more common than passive was burnt/ed down. Which is what we expect to find, especially if it's the event, and not the participants, that are in focus.

    Does that help?
    Last edited by Casiopea; 19-Jul-2007 at 13:25.

  7. #7
    Englishlanguage is offline Member
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Thank you Casiopea,
    I'm just not really sure about the difference between the ergative verb and the middle voice.
    An "ergative verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive."
    e.g.:
    The window broke. Intransitive verb, the subject is "the window"
    He broke the window. Transitive verb, "the window" becames direct object.
    (from wikipedia)
    While the middle voice is "an intransitive verb that appears active but expresses a passive action"
    e.g.: The casserole cooked in the oven
    (wikipedia).
    Can't a verb be either ergative and a middle voice?
    The sentence The house burnt down may be ergative since the subject The house becames a direct object when a transitive verb is used, as in He burnt the house down.
    But it can also be a middle voice since the verb burnt expresses a passive action. The house burnt down = The house was burnt down.
    Am I wrong? I really can't see a clear difference between them.
    Why is the same verb ergative when it is used in the simple present and a middle voice when it is used in the simple past?

  8. #8
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Quote Originally Posted by Englishlanguage View Post
    Can't a verb be ... ergative and ... middle voice?
    Yes!, and that's an excellent observation. Tense, as I had originially stated, has nothing to do with the difference between these two examples:

    Ergative (past tense): The house burnt down.
    Middle (present tense): The house burns down.

    They are examples of an ergative verb in middle voice.



    There are only three voices in English: active, passive, and middle or mediopassive.
    ... the intransitive construction of an ergative verb is often said to be in a middle voice, between active and passive, or in a mediopassive voice, between active and passive but closer to passive.

    !Correction!
    Middle (or mediopassive) voice
    Present tense: The house burns down as the crowd looks on. <ergative>
    Past tense: The house burnt down yesterday. <ergative>

    An ergative verb is a verb that may be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when it is intransitive plays the same semantic role as its direct object when it is transitive. For example, [burn down] is an ergative verb, such that the following sentences are roughly synonymous:
    • The house burnt down.
    • The house was burnt down.
    • Someone burnt down the house.

    ... the intransitive construction does not permit an agent to be mentioned, and indeed can imply that no agent is present, ...

    Source: ibid
    Last edited by Casiopea; 21-Jul-2007 at 06:44.

  9. #9
    Englishlanguage is offline Member
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    Thank you very much

  10. #10
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    Re: burn down vs. be burnt down

    You're most welcome, and my apologies for the error.

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