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I interpret this sentence's meaning as something like, "The letter ended up being seen by someone else."

From what I understand, the verb 見る is transitive, "to see." The verb 見られる should be its passive form then, "to be seen," which should be intransitive. The particle を indicates that the preceding noun is the direct object of a verb that follows it, right? So then, wouldn't 「他の人に手紙が見られてしまいました」 make more sense?

I have a feeling this might have more to do with the verb than the particle. Does 見る not lose its transitiveness when it is put in its passive form? If so, is を able to be used without a transitive verb then?

Where did I go wrong?

marked as duplicate by 3 to 5 business days, Dono, Szymon, virmaior, Flaw Dec 24 '14 at 1:27

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  • 2
    This is the "suffering" or "adversative" usage of the passive. See also japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4639/#comment11486_4640, japanese.stackexchange.com/q/15933, japanese.stackexchange.com/q/11025/3437. (One of these is probably close enough to be a duplicate.) – senshin Dec 21 '14 at 4:03
  • I had the letter seen by somebody else. resembles the Japanese sentence. "to be seen" -> "to have seen" – blutorange Dec 21 '14 at 7:54
  • @blutorange I know what you're trying to say there, but unfortunately "I had" in English can also mean 〜てもらった, which I think is the default reading of that sentence (as opposed to the passive one you're trying to invoke). – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '14 at 7:59
  • (Although one could argue that it's exactly the same as in Japanese, it's just that in English you get a notion of positive affectedness, while in Japanese you get negative affectedness. I've never seen such an argument before though!) – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '14 at 8:03

This is the so-called "adversarial passive".

I give a detailed explanation of passives (including the "adversarial" ones) here:

「を」 object marker in this 受身形{うけみけい} sentence

In your case:

Active Sentence:  他の人が       (私の)手紙を 見た  ⇓
⇓Passive Sentence:  (私が) 他の人に     手紙を 見られた⇓

That is to say, 「私の」 gets lifted to 「私が」, and 「他の人が」 gets lifted to 「他の人に」.

As mentioned in the other answer, when a の-marked thing gets lifted to が, it results in that thing (私 in your case) being "affected", and in general that means "negatively affected".

If you were to lift 「手紙を」 to が, like you suggested, it would be perfectly fine, but that sentence would lack the implications of

  1. the letter being someone's (i.e., it would just be "a/the letter" as opposed to "my letter" or whoever the context suggests as the owner);
  2. that someone being negatively affected by the seeing event.
  • (If that doesn't answer your question, let me know what's confusing you and I can edit in some more details.) – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '14 at 4:13
  • Can you apply it to my example and explain it in a simple way please? – Rurfs Dec 21 '14 at 7:04
  • I applied it to your example. I'm not sure if the explanation is adequately simple, but I'm not sure if there's a simpler one that explains all the implications. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '14 at 7:18
  • How exactly does it change the meaning from "a/the" to "my"? And how it makes someone "negatively affected"? I just don't understand how a particle can have that effect. – Rurfs Dec 21 '14 at 21:59
  • 1
    @Rurfs (1) The underlying active sentence of 「手紙が他の人に見られた」 is 「他の人が手紙を見た」. As you can see, there is no 「私の」 in this underlying active sentence, which is why it doesn't have the "my" implication in the passive. – Darius Jahandarie Dec 21 '14 at 22:20

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