Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Double Passives, in English and Turkish

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2007

Back in 2004, I first noticed sentences like these:

Despite intense curiosity, the plot of Gary Trotter and the Deathly Marshmallows was managed to be kept a secret almost until its release date.

Unfortunately, one bookstore’s copies were neglected to be locked away, and an employee posted lots of spoilers on her MySpace page.

The unusual property of sentences like these is that not one but two verbs are put in the passive voice. You can’t say the plot “managed to be kept secret”, because it sounds like the plot is an animate thing, capable of managing to do things. Similarly for the books neglected to be locked away, which implies that books are animate. On the other hand, you can’t say the plot “was managed to keep secret” or that the books “were neglected to lock away”, because those phrasings just aren’t English. (Such “long passives” are OK in German or Spanish with certain verbs; I don’t know if the translations for manage or neglect happen to be among them.) So, short of major rephrasings, both verbs end up in the passive.

Later I learned that Malagasy has a construction that’s similar to the double passive, and now it turns out that Turkish has a double passive construction, too. Jaklin Kornfilt has written about them in a number of papers, and gives examples like these:

üniversite-ler   polis   tarafından kuʂat-ıl-mag-a
university.PL   police by                 surround-PASSIVE-Infin-Dat


“The universities were begun to be surrounded by the police.”

The Turkish double passives are much more like the English kind than what you find in Malagasy. The construction called double passive in Malagasy is actually more like what we have in this sentence:

Gary Trotter and the Deathly Marshmallows is scheduled to be released for sale on Saturday.

Even though there are two passives in a row in this sentence, if you compare it to the active-voice sentence They scheduled Gary Trotter and the Deathly Marshmallows to be released for sale on Saturday, you can see that only one active verb (scheduled) has been turned passive. The passive VP, to be released for sale on Saturday, is passive for independent reasons. Put another way, schedule is passive because the subject, GT&DM, is not the one doing the scheduling; release is passive because the subject is not the one doing the releasing. One semantic difference between true double passives and these sentences that look like double passives is that in a true double passive, there’s only one agent. With was managed to be kept secret, there’s only one group of people relevant to the sentence, engaged in the act of managing to keep the plot a secret. With were neglected to be locked away, there’s only one group of people, neglecting to lock away the books. But in scheduled to be released, the actors could be different, with the publishing company doing the scheduling, and the individual bookstores doing the releasing. In Turkish (according to Kornfilt), as in English, each double passive involves only one agent (or set of agents).

Even so, there is one big difference between Turkish and English double passives. In Turkish, the only verbs you can make them with are baʂla ‘begin,’ çalıʂ ‘try,’ and iste ‘want.’ In English, however, I’ve found them with just about any verb I’ve tried that takes an infinitive and no direct object, with one proviso: The verb (when it’s used in the active voice) has to determine what the subject is doing, not just let the infinitive that follows do it. For example, the subject of try is actually doing something: taking actions that s/he believes will help bring about some desired state of affairs. Try, therefore, is eligible for use in double passives. The subject of seem, on the other hand, is doing only the activity named by the following infinitive (and maybe not even that). If the verb phrase is seems to be reading/dancing/blogging, the subject of seems is (possibly) reading/dancing/blogging. So seem is not good for double passives. (In linguists’ terms, the verb has to have a thematic subject.) So the question now is what kind of analysis can capture the similarities of the English and Turkish double passives, but still be customizable so that the Turkish double passive can be limited to ‘begin,’ ‘try,’ and ‘want,’ without putting this restriction on English double passives.

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3 Responses to “Double Passives, in English and Turkish”

  1. [...] the voice is infinitely interesting. Take, for example, the curious construction of the double passive voice, as in “one bookstore’s copies were neglected to be locked [...]

  2. [...] by Neal on April 11, 2008 The last time I reported on double passives, it was to say that I’d learned they existed in Turkish as well as in English. For those new [...]

  3. Agamemnon said

    I am currently trying to translate a double passive sentence from Latin into German. The source is Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (1.152) and the line reads as follows:

    multa in terri fieri caeloque tuentur

    In English one might translate: “many things are seen to be created on earth and in the sky”.

    Unfortunately, a direct translation into German of the double passive (“are seen to be created”) is not possible (viele Dinge auf der Erde und im Himmel werden geschaffen gesehen…..). One solution is to create a subordinate clause: “es wird gesehen, dass/wie viele Dinge auf der Erde und im Himmel geschaffen werden”. Otherwise I am pretty much stumped.

    At any rate, double passives are seen to be used in Latin as well, for anyone who might be interested…. :-)

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