Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Another Circumstantial Passive?

Posted by Neal on March 20, 2006

Doug thought it was the coolest thing when one of the onions in our pantry sprouted. He wanted to plant it. “We won’t have to buy any more onions at the grocery store,” he said. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if we planted it. Since onions are root vegetables, I couldn’t expect this onion to produce a little onion bush with onions hanging from its branches. But I just said, “Sure, OK,” and planted the onion in a small pot. For the next week, the sprouting stalks grew taller, breaking off here and there when the cats nibbled on them; the whole thing smelled more and more oniony; and about once a day my wife would ask what Doug and I were planning on doing with that onion.

When the weekend came, the leaves were all starting to wilt, and the onion could be smelled from across the kitchen. That’s when my wife said,

That will have to be done something with today.

She finally let me in on some of the life cycle of the onion, from her own experience with her family’s garden as a kid: If you didn’t pick them, eventually they just wilted and died, just like this one. So I took the pot outside and dumped the onion, and as I did, I thought about what my wife had said…

On the one hand, That will have to be done something with reminded me of prepositional passives like these:

  • The three bears’ chairs had been sat on.
  • I noticed that several of my toys had been played with.

In these sentences, an intransitive verb (sit, play) plus a preposition acts like a quasi-transitive verb, and the object of the preposition is promoted to be the subject (This house, several of my toys). Similarly, in my wife’s sentence, it’s the object of the preposition (with) that becomes the subject.

On the other hand, my wife’s sentence reminded me of Doug’s circumstantial passive:

This one hasn’t been eaten-any-Scooby-Snacks-out-of!

As with the prepositional passives, the object of a preposition is promoted to subject. In this case, it’s This one (i.e. the bag that the Scooby Snacks are eaten out). But in this case, the verb (eat) is transitive, which means that a direct object (any Scooby Snacks) has to be bypassed in order to get to the object of the preposition (out of). Similarly, in my wife’s sentence, the direct object something is passed over in favor of That, the object of the preposition with.

But I can’t escape the feeling that this is not a circumstantial passive like the one Doug uttered. In Doug’s sentence, the items most affected by the eating, namely, the Scooby Snacks, are not promoted to subject. By contrast, in his mom’s sentence, the item most directly affected by the action is the onion, and it is promoted to subject. Unlike in Doug’s sentence, the unpromoted direct object here, something, is a kind of degenerate direct object; replace do something with with any more specific verb, and it’ll be a transitive verb, with this (onion) as its direct object. So if we decide that do-something-with should by all rights be considered a transitive verb, then This will have to be done something with is just an ordinary passive, just as it would be if we happened to have a word, say flum, that meant “to do something to” and my wife had said, “This will have to be flummed.”

So all in all, I’d say That will have to be done something with has more in common with ordinary prepositional passives than with circumstantial passives. It’s just the first prepositional passive I’ve seen where promoting the object of the preposition entails ignoring a direct object. I’ve now found a few others, all with variants of do something.

  1. in my opinion, its not really like a GY, we get another place where spells go, so that they are done something with there. (link)
  2. Since this obviously is a problem for more than one, it would be nice if it was done something with…. (link)
  3. She had to be done something with, and after all she had suffered, it was not in the heart of poetic justice to deny her a little moriturary triumph. (link)
  4. there must have been a Great effusion of blood, which must have been done something with. (link)
  5. In that time, she was done something to so that she would give birth to the child of Etienne Dark. (link)
  6. [definition of gaybas] v. did something in a gay manner, or were done something to in a gay manner (link)
  7. But having been here long enough, I know that chicken must have been done something to. (link)
  8. So word order in this example tells you who is doing something and who is being done something to…. (link)
  9. but as long as the points described above is done SOMETHING about, i will buy the thing, no doubt (link)
  10. Not everything can be thought over and be done something about. (link)
  11. Pursueing orthodontics would make no sense until those canines are being done something about. (link)
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2 Responses to “Another Circumstantial Passive?”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Swedish already has a single-word verb (åtgärda) for ‘do something about'; judging by a Google search, phrases like som borde åtgärdas ‘which ought to be done-something-about’ are perfectly acceptable. (If an English cognate existed, such a word would fill the role of your ‘flum’ example perfectly.)

  2. [...] short, what we have is another possible circumstantial passive, like this one that I wrote about before: That will have to be done something with [...]

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