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A native speaker told me that:
泥棒{どろぼう}に、お財布{さいふ} 、盗{ぬす}まれた。
is correct.

However, I sure think that:
泥棒に、お財布 、盗まれた。
is correct.

Moreover, I am pretty sure that using the object marker, 「を」, in any 受身形 sentence is extremely uncommon. What is going on? Is a native speaker telling me incorrect Japanese?

  • Are you mixing up passive and potential form? Passive generally takes を while potential takes が. – comeauch Sep 19 '14 at 1:46
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    @comeauch Don't forget that there are two types of passives in Japanese, direct and indirect (also called the adversative or suffering passive). – snailcar Sep 19 '14 at 1:58
  • @comeauch Just like in English passive voice, Japanese passive voice does not take objects. I mean, passive voice is the taking of the object, making it the subject, then mutating the verb into 受身形. Including the original subject in 受身形 is optional (just like in English passive voice). While I think I have seen 受身形 with an を、but am not sure. – user312440 Sep 19 '14 at 2:00
  • @snailboat I had no clue that there are 2 types of passive voice. I will investigate. thank you! – user312440 Sep 19 '14 at 2:04
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    I'm not very good with grammar, but if you say 財布を盗まれた, then it happened to you. If you say 財布が盗まれた, then the sentence becomes impersonal and there is not the immediate implication that it was your wallet. I hope that this somehow helps... – yu_ominae Sep 19 '14 at 6:41
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There are various ways to analyze passives in Japanese grammatically (see Ishizuka, p. 174), but I will be presenting a specific view which I really like, which is Ishizuka's.

When you passivize a sentence in Japanese (by adding -(r)are- to the verb), you

  • lift a non-が argument of the active sentence to が, and
  • lift the が argument of the active sentence to に.

The non-が argument can be anything -- sometimes it's the を argument, sometimes the に argument, sometimes the から argument, or sometimes even a possessive の lower down in the structure, etc.

(Note: There is also another type of passive where there is truly a new argument added, not pulled out from the original active sentence -- but not all native speakers accept them and they aren't needed to discuss this question. See Ishizuka, p. 263.)

Your sentences

So, I would say these are the original active sentences of your passives:

  泥棒が      (私から) 財布を 盗んだ。
⇒ (私が) 泥棒に       財布を 盗まれた。

Namely, 私から gets promoted to 私が, and 泥棒が gets promoted to 泥棒に.
(Note: The 私の version is probably just as fine an original sentence for this.)

   泥棒が     財布を 盗んだ。
⇒  財布が 泥棒に     盗まれた。

Here, 財布を gets promoted to 財布が, and 泥棒が gets promoted to 泥棒に.

Semantic differences

So, while that is a little syntax which you may or may not believe, is there an actual semantic difference between the two constructions?

Adversarialness

In general, there is a difference in adversarialness, though in this specific case not really.

The usual difference is that there is a connotation of the が-marked argument in the passive sentence being "affected" (which usually gets further interpreted as adversarial due to information structure) when it was originally marked by:

  • "on" に (e.g., 雨が太郎に降った。⇒太郎が雨に降られた。)
  • の (e.g., 直美がケンの子どもを叱った。⇒ケンが直美に子どもを叱られた。)
  • から (e.g., 妻が夫から逃げた。⇒夫が妻に逃げられた。)

while the others (other にs, を, etc.) do not result in the が-marked argument being "affected".

However, both of your sentences are adversarial, simply because getting your wallet stolen always affects you negatively.

In English, consider

John saw Mary entering the building at 6 o'clock.

Mary was seen entering the building at 6 o'clock by John.

Mary is clearly more negatively affected in the latter.

However, in

A thief stole John's wallet.

John had his wallet stolen by a thief.

John was negatively affected in both just due to "thief" and "stolen".

So while 泥棒に財布を盗まれた。 forces the adversarialness, I think 泥棒に財布が盗まれた。 and 泥棒が財布を盗んだ。 are equally as adversarial anyways simply due to the words used.

Person being stolen from

As yu_ominae points out...

泥棒に財布を盗まれた。 requires an explicit understanding of someone being stolen from / there being a wallet owner. If you look at the syntax, this is because the thing in the が-position (which is omitted, but only due to context making it clear) is who it is being stolen from or the owner of the wallet.

On the other hand, 泥棒に財布が盗まれた does not require that understanding, because it is really just like the passive in English ("The wallet was stolen by a thief"), where, while who it is being stolen from could optionally be added as an adjunct (私から/"from me"), it is not a part of the actual sentence.

Source

Ishizuka, T. (2010). Toward a Unified Analysis of Passive in Japanese: A Cartographic Minimalist Approach.

Relevant sections are:

  • Raising things to が: pp. 67-150.
  • Adversarial connotations: pp. 245-261.

But the entire thing is quite nice.

  • Wow, great explanation, thanks for that! I've forgotten all this stuff... :( – yu_ominae Sep 19 '14 at 7:33
  • @yu_ominae Thanks! You pointed out something I completely missed which is absolutely obvious in retrospect. I appended my answer with it. – Darius Jahandarie Sep 19 '14 at 7:34
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I might be seeing this too simplistically, but in the first sentence: 泥棒に財布を盗ぬすまれた (A thief stole my wallet) you are the subject and the wallet is the object, hence the を on the wallet.

In the second sentence: 泥棒に財布が盗まれた (the/a wallet was stolen by a thief) the wallet is the (passive) subject, hence the が.

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