I've been reading the section on viewpoint in A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (DBJG). In it he states that the following sentence is ungrammatical


My son was scolded by me

The claim is that 'the passive construction requires the viewpoint of the referent of the subject'. Now I'm not sure I understand that phrase but I interpret it as follows. The subject is 'my son' and 'my son' is referring to 'son', therefore, the referent of the subject is 'son'. Is this correct?

It also references rule B which says 'When a sentence includes the structure, A's B, the speaker is taking A's viewpoint rather than B's'. Therefore since the sentence begins 'My son' it is taking 'my' viewpoint rather than the son's viewpoint. Applying these two rules results in a contradiction thus rendering the sentence ungrammatical. But here's where it goes wrong. I have an example in another book which claims to be perfectly grammatical.


This sentence contains the same contradiction that according to the first rule the sentence should be from the viewpoint of the 'letter' but according to the second rule it is from the viewpoint of Mike.

So, have I completely misinterpreted these rules (I'm sure I must have since any passive sentence that began nounのnoun would be incorrect.)? If so how should I interpret these rules? What is it that makes the first sentence ungrammatical and the second one okay?

I read another rule: 'The speaker usually describes a situation from his own viewpoint rather than from others' when he is involved in the situation. So I suppose that might make my first example invalid, but consider this conversation in which person B is a teacher at the school:

A) All the children at school got scolded today. My son was scolded by Mrs nasty. How about yours?

B) My son was scolded by me

Would 私のむすこは私にしかられた still be incorrect in this scenario?

Sorry for the long question. I've looked at all the other material on this site and nothing has eased my confusion so far.

  • TL;DR. I think the point is 1) first person agent in the passive voice is unnatural 2) animate agent and inanimate subject in the passive voice is unnatural. There are exceptions though. – Yang Muye May 9 '15 at 13:04
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    「私のむすこは私にしかられた。」, though pretty unnatural, looks still perfectly grammatical to me. It is certainly nothing a native speaker would say (except in translating from a foreign language), but "grammar" should be looked at independently of that. – l'électeur May 10 '15 at 0:14

Sentences in Japanese tend to revolve around the perspective of animate objects rather than inanimate objects. Because passive sentences are seen from the subject's perspective rather than the agent's (which is pretty much the main reason to use passive), it sounds weird to have an inanimate subject and an animate agent.

This is true in English, too. The sentence, "the door was opened by him", does not sound natural at all because the subject is inanimate and the agent is animate. A much better choice would be a non-passive construction: "he opened the door", because then the viewpoint is the animate object.

When both the subject and agent are animate, there is still a preference of which should be the viewpoint of the sentence. Here is a general order of the preferred viewpoint:

  1. Speaker
  2. Someone from speaker's "uchi" (friends, family, etc.)
  3. Listener
  4. Anyone else

The sentence should take the viewpoint of whichever object is higher on the list. In your first given sentence, for example, both objects are animate: 私 and 私のむすこ. But because 私 is higher on the list than 私のむすこ, it should take precedence and should be the main focus of the sentence. If there is a tie (probably either both from "uchi" or two people socially distant from the speaker), or both are inanimate objects, then it doesn't matter much who the viewpoint is.

There are gray areas, though, so there could be some exceptions. Just the mentioning of Mike in the other example might make the subject seem somewhat animate. I don't know if this is really any grammar rule but determining what makes it animate and what doesn't.

Also, all of this only really applies to passive constructions where the agent is explicitly stated. Removing 私に from the first one would make it a valid sentence.

  • Thanks for your reply. I agree that 'My son was scolded by me' normally sounds weird in English too, but in the last example I gave (with the teacher) that sentence would be perfectly natural. Would it work in Japanese too in that context or is it always just weird sounding? – user3856370 May 10 '15 at 12:33
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    The son is part of the speaker's family, so yes, it sounds normal to have him as the subject as opposed to the teacher in Japanese. That may also be the reason it sounds ok in English but I don't really know. – Blavius May 10 '15 at 14:44

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