Passives are not hard to interpret but hard to remember: evidence from online and offline studies

Caterina Paolazzi, Nino Grillo, Artemis Alexiadou, Andrea Santi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Passive sentences are considered more difficult to comprehend than active ones. Previous online-only studies cast doubt on this generalization. The current paper directly compares online and offline processing of passivization and manipulates verb type: state vs event. Stative passives are temporarily ambiguous (adjectival vs verbal), eventive passives are not (always verbal). Across 4 experiments (self-paced reading with comprehension questions), passives were consistently read faster than actives. This contradicts the claim that passives are difficult to parse and/or interpret, as argued by main perspectives of passive processing (heuristic or syntactic). The reading time facilitation is compatible with broader expectation/surprisal theories. When comprehension targeted theta-roles assignment, passives were more errorful, regardless of verb type. Verbal WM measures did not correlate with the difference in accuracy, excluding it as an explanation. The accuracy effect is argued to reflect a post-interpretive difficulty associated with generating/maintaining a propositional representation of passives required by specific tasks.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalLanguage Cognition and Neuroscience
Early online date5 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • language comprehension
  • passivisation
  • surprisal
  • filler-gap dependency

Cite this