Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Richard Lederer on Double Passives

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2006

While driving to pick up Adam from school, I caught part of Fred Andrle’s Open Line program on the radio today. The guest was a language professional, not the lexicographer they had that other time, but none other than Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English, which is the source of a lot of email-propagated language humor (usually presented without any credit given to Lederer). Student writing errors, malapropisms, quotations from church newsletters and other sources with humorous ambiguities: If you’ve ever been forwarded lists of items like these, or (back in the old days) seen them as fifth-generation photocopies on office doors, you’ve probably read Lederer’s stuff. On the program, in between calls from listeners, he was plugging a new edition of Anguished English and his latest book on grammar, which the station was giving copies of to donors who pledged $100.

So anyway, I was listening to Lederer talking with a couple of callers about pronoun case forms, and another caller about some malapropisms, and I decided I’d phone in to see what he had to say about double passives. I listened for the phone number, then dialed it on my cell phone as I sat in the school parking lot.

They answered right away. “Thank you for supporting WOSU, may I take your pledge?”

“Oh, sorry, wrong number,” I said. How embarrassing; I wish people would just hurry up and pledge so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me. I listened again for the right number, and tried again. This time I got through.

Using the example of:

  • I made the kids’ lunch.
  • The kids’ lunch was made.
  • I forgot to make the kids’ lunch.
  • The kids’ lunch was forgotten to be made

I asked Lederer if he’d noticed this kind of passive and had any comments on it. Did Lederer…

…observe that this kind of passive is not such a recent development, being attested in the writings of David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Charles Darwin, and Horace Walpole?

…note that there’s really no other way to turn the kids’ lunch into the subject without a lot of circumlocution?

…point out that while not a typical passive, this passive is no more unusual than passives such as John was rumored to have sent overly friendly emails?

…go into a lecture about how one should Avoid Passive?

…assert that lunch was forgotten to be made made no sense?

…equate use of the passive voice with moral laxity of those who ought to be taking responsibility and saying, “I forgot to make the kids’ lunch”?

No, no, and no; and yes, yes, and yes. To be fair, he qualified the injunction against the passive, saying to avoid it “when you can,” and his advice in the book may be more nuanced. You can hear the podcast on Windows Media for probably another week or so by going here and scrolling down to the 11:00 October 17 show; my exchange with Lederer (with a lot more y’knows and ums than I’d have imagined) is from 44.34 to 46.59.

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2 Responses to “Richard Lederer on Double Passives”

  1. Glen said

    Neither of those links works.

  2. Neal said

    All fixed now.

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