Fun with idioms and expletives

In general, you can’t re-arrange idiomatic expressions too much without losing the idiom. Thus,

1. The shit hit the fan

2. The fan was hit by shit

Reading (2), most of us probably envision literal shit literally hitting a literal fan before we re-compute the sentence as a passivized idiom. Still, it’s a legitimate and grammatical sentence. I can imagine someone using it for extra comedic effect.

However, consider the following idiomatic expression and its passive equivalent:

3. It rained cats and dogs (or, It was raining cats and dogs)

4. #Cats and dogs were raining

5. *Cats and dogs were raining by it

Unlike (2), sentences (4) and (5) are simply ungrammatical; actually, (4) is grammatical but semantically unacceptable because its theta grid is all mucked up.

What gives? Why can’t we passivize the idiomatic expression “It rained cats and dogs” the way we passivized “The shit hit the fan”? I haven’t seen this problem addressed in linguistics journals, but I’d bet a bottle of nice Scotch that it has to do with the expletive.

In a generative framework, passive sentences are structurally equivalent to their active counterparts. “The boy hit the ball” becomes “The ball was hit by the boy” via a simple transformation triggered by the addition of auxiliary “was.” Passivizing “hit” with the auxiliary blocks the verb’s ability to assign case to the DP “the ball.” So, to get case, the DP moves to spec-TP, and “the boy,” which was the subject in the active sentence, moves to an optional adjunct phrase (typically a by-phrase).


These movements cannot occur with the idiomatic expression in (3) because the active-voiced idiom contains an expletive in spec-TP. Passivizing the verb into “were raining” would mean moving the expletive to an optional adjunct phrase, as in (5). But expletives can’t appear in prepositional phrases! They aren’t allowed to surface in X-governed nodes. That explains why (5) is ungrammatical and why (4) sounds meaningless.

Now, while I was working on this fun linguistics puzzle, someone brought to my attention that it’s possible to passivize the following sentence, which is not idiomatic but does contain an expletive:

6. We found it to be raining.

7. It was found to be raining.

However, the expletive in this passive sentence generates in relation to “found”, an Exceptional Case Marking verb, and an infinitival to-be clause. So, the active version of this sentence can be analyzed simply as a small-clause structure:

[We found [it to be raining]]

The passive sentence, (7), generates by moving the expletive from spec-TP in (6) to spec-TP in (7) so that it can receive case. In other words, expletive it never needs to surface in an X-governed node like it would in (5). So, the sentence can be passivized.


2 thoughts on “Fun with idioms and expletives

  1. You make a good point about the expletive, but I think the reason you can’t passivize is because rain is intransitive. The phrase cats and dogs is an adjunct, not a direct object. So with no object to promote to subject, the passive is impossible (cf. The wizard laughed, *Laughed by the wizard).

    • Hey, that’s a good point, too. I assumed that “cats and dogs” is indeed an object, but I definitely see how it can be read as an adjunct adverb phrase. A simpler explanation that obviates my more contorted one!

      However, given the possible etymologies of the word, I still think it’s possible that it’s an object. Check out the Library of Congress’s take on the phrase. The first and third possibilities suggest a nominal, direct object analysis, at least in the phrase’s earlier form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s