Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Double Passive on the Ballot

Posted by Neal on May 4, 2010

I just got back from voting. What a relief this time to be able to vote “Issues Only”, and not have to skip lots of slots where people are running unopposed, or where I know nothing about any of the candidates. One of the issues was for a tax, which was in the wording on the ballot) “proposed to be levied”. Another double passive!

I’ve talked about double passives a lot, but for newer readers who don’t feel like going through the other entries, I’ll give some examples of ordinary passives for comparison.

First, a simple sentence with an ordinary, transitive verb, levy:

They levied a tax. (active voice levy)
A tax was levied (passive voice was levied).

Next, a more complex sentence, with a verb (expect) that takes a noun phrase (them) and then an infinitive phrase (to levy a tax). You can have both verbs active, one active and one passive, or both passive:

We expect them to levy a tax. (active voice expect, active voice levy)
They are expected to levy a tax. (passive voice are expected, active voice levy)
We expect a tax to be levied. (active voice expect, passive voice be levied)
A tax is expected to be levied. (passive voice is expected, passive voice be levied)

All of these sentences are completely standard English. But when you try to do run the sentence on the ballot through these same paces, the first three are ungrammatical (indicated by the asterisk):

*We propose them to levy a tax. (active voice propose, active voice levy)
*They are proposed to levy a tax. (passive voice are proposed, active voice levy)
*We propose a tax to be levied. (active voice propose, passive voice be levied)
A tax is proposed to be levied. (passive voice is proposed, passive voice be levied)

In fact, for many people, that last sentence is ungrammatical, too, but for many other people, it’s fine. And your grammar can’t generate it with the same rule that produces other passive sentences. That makes sense, actually. If the same rule that generated A tax was levied could generate A tax was proposed to be levied, we’d expect them to be equally grammatical in the population of speakers. In contrast, if some speakers have both the ordinary passive rule and this double passive rule, and other speakers have only the ordinary passive rule, then we expect that some will accept double passives, and others won’t.

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4 Responses to “Double Passive on the Ballot”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    If I understand what a double passive is, an example of a fairly common double passive in Texas is,”He was sentenced to be executed” on such and such a date.

    • Neal said

      No, that’s a pseudo-double passive, like A tax was expected to be levied. It’s just the ordinary passivization of the sentence They sentenced him to be executed.

  2. The Ridger said

    Whoa. “We propose a tax to be levied” is ungrammatical? Sounds fine to me. I would expect a complement, but I’d expect one in “a tax is proposed to be levied”, too.

    • Neal said

      Oh. Right. “Propose a tax to be levied” *is* grammatical, because “a tax to be levied” is grammatical. To keep thus irrelevant parse out of the picture, replace “a tax” with “it”, and I’m thinking you won’t find the construction grammatical anymore: *”We propose it to be levied.” Am I right?

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