Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans

Posted by Neal on May 8, 2014

Here are a few items I recorded some time ago, and just found lying in my stash of draft posts.

Doug and Adam each spontaneously uttered a double passive within a day or two of each other sometime in the past year. Here’s Doug’s:

… standing in front of a chemical plant that‘s threatened to be bombed.

I don’t even remember what the context was for that. It’s a good thing I wrote this down, or it’d be a memory lost forever, like all that thing he did that one time that I didn’t bother putting in his baby book, or that other thing he did that other time that I never put in a diary or anything. Anyway, if the clause about the chemical plant were in the active voice, it would be something like “a chemical plant that someone threatens to bomb.” But if you don’t know who made the threat, how do you say this? You do like Doug did, and use the passive voice. The trouble is, you have two verbs to deal with: threatened, and bomb. Which one do you make passive? Option 1 below

just doesn’t make any sense. Option 2 is grammatical, but it removes the human agency from threaten. It sounds like conditions are such that the chemical plant is likely to be bombed, in the same way that It’s threatening to rain means, “Conditions are such that it’s likely to rain.” So he went with option 3, making both verbs passive.

  1. *a chemical plant that is threatened to bomb
  2. a chemical plant that threatens to be bombed
  3. a chemical plant that is threatened to be bombed

Now, on to Adam’s double passive:

Fidel Castro has been attempted to be assassinated over 600 times.

I think he got this off a history website or something, like maybe this Mental Floss article.

Robin Dodsworth sent me the weirdest case of possible right-node wrapping that I’ve seen. I’ve come to believe that nonparallel coordinate structures such as

wash and put the dishes away

are actually part of many people’s English grammar. Usually they consist of an ordinary transitive verb (e.g. wash) and a phrasal transitive verb (put away) taking a single direct object, with the preposition from the phrasal verb coming after the direct object. Phrased as a parallel coordinate structure, this would be “Wash the dishes and put them away.” Robin’s example, though, is different. An old high school friend wrote on Facebook:

Scariest moment of the year — the first cool day of Fall when you have to put on (and find out) if last year’s jeans still fit.

Put into a parallel structure, this would be “Put on last year’s jeans and find out if they still fit.” So instead of being a direct object with respect to the parts I’ve colored red and green in the quotation, it’s a direct object for put on, and an embedded subject in find out if ___ still fit. This is so unlike other RNW examples that I suspect it was just a mistake, but I don’t know. Does it sound comparable to wash and put the dishes away to you?

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6 Responses to “Chemicals, Castro, and Last Year’s Jeans”

  1. “Wash and put the dishes away” sounds a little clumsy to me, but “put on (and find out) if last years’s jeans still fit” is a train wreck.

  2. dainichi said

    Apart from the right-node wrapping, why the parentheses?

    • Ellen K. said

      Because people are clueless about how to properly use parentheses. It’s not that far off from an ordinary and normal use of parenthesis. Still, though, wrong.

      • dainichi said

        Really? I mean, it’s practically the definition of parentheses that you can remove them (plus what’s between them) and have something meaningful left. In natural language, not in formulas, that is.

      • Neal said

        Here’s how the parentheses might be used in a similar sentence without the complications of non-parallel structure: He bought (but later returned) three pairs of pants. You could omit them and still have something grammatical, but the parentheses emphasize that the material is an interruption of the sentence, a not-strictly-relevant thought.

        With a more-typical right-node raising, I might expect something like this: Please wash and dry (but do not put away) the dishes. But I wouldn’t expect it in a right-node wrapping, where the final verb isn’t an afterthought requiring pauses to set it off, but a more central part of the sentence. That is, I wouldn’t expect Please wash and dry (but do not put) the dishes away, with the away lifted out of the parentheses and put at the end.

        However, that kind of lifting is like what happened here, except that we have two pieces lifted out of the parentheses: the still fit and the if. So this is why my color-coding ignores the parentheses, and also part of the reason that I think this sentence is more like Jonathan’s “train wreck” than a more-or-less OK right-node wrapping.

  3. EP said

    I’m not sure which one I like better. A sleep like death or a sleep-like death.

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