Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Passive voice’ Category

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?

Posted in Adam, Double passives, Doug, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 6 Comments »

More Double Passives in Norwegian

Posted by Neal on June 6, 2013

A topic that I’ve been blogging about every now and then since before I even had my own blog was what I’ve been calling double passives. The very first example I wrote about, and the one that I still consider my canonical example of this construction in English, is this one:

(One person was killed, and) others were attempted to be killed.

The subject of the main verb, others, seems to have been promoted all the way up from the embedded verb kill, and along the way, both the main verb and the embedded verb have been put into the passive voice.

Five years ago, I blogged about how I’d learned that double passives existed in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish, too. The example I quoted in that post was from a 2001 paper by Lars Hellan:

Jon ble forsøkt skutt
Jon was attempt(PAST PART.) shoot(PAST PART.)
“Jon was attempted to be shot.”

As Hellan noted, sentences like these have a passive main verb and embedded verb, but the embedded verb is not an infinitive like in English. It’s just a past participle. If I had given a more literal translation, it would have been “Jon was attempted shot.” All the same, it looked like a double passive to me.

Now, I’ve been reading a paper from just last year by Helge Lødrup, who agrees that double passives exist in Norwegian, but argues that sentences like that last example aren’t them. Instead, he offers lots of examples that look even more like double passives in English, in that the passive embedded verbs are infinitives instead of past participles. He doesn’t call them double passives; he uses the term non-raising passives with passive infinitives. I think I’ll stick with double passive. Here are the first three that he gives in his introduction, with my preferred translations added:

  1. Tydeligvis kan ikke slike lys unngåes å misbrukes fra tid til annen.
    obviously can not such lights avoid-PASS to misemploy-PASS from time to other
    “Obviously, one cannot avoid that such lights are misemployed from time to time.”
    [NW: "Obviously, such lights can't be avoided being abused from time to time."]
  2. en beskjed om at vaskemaskinen må huskes å slås på
    a message about that the washing.machine must remember-PASS to turn-PASS on
    “a message that you should remember to turn the washing machine on”
    [NW: "a message that the washing machine must be remembered to be turned on"]
  3. viktige stridsspørsmål blir unnlatt å presiseres i den politiske behandlingen
    important issues are neglected to clarify-PASS in the political process
    “They neglect clarifying important issues in the political process.”
    [NW: "Important issues are neglected to be clarified in the political process."]

So these are a much clearer counterpart to English double passives. Example 1, with unngåes “avoided”, is not as much like English as the others, because this verb seems to take an infinitive in Norwegian, whereas it takes a gerund in English: avoid doing. Out of curiosity, though, I looked to see if I could find double passives with avoid in English, and I did find this specimen:

Nevertheless, there are some key foods to avoid administering, although they really should stick to just their diet. Below is a list of foods that should be avoided being given to your pet at all costs. (link)

Lødrup has several reasons for arguing that these English-like double passives are not the same kind of phenomenon as the ones that Hellan wrote about, which he and Hellan refer to as complex passives. First of all, there’s the past participle-vs-infinitive thing. For another thing, only a few verbs can be the main verb for a complex passive, including try, whereas many verbs can be the main verb in one of the double passives. In addition, the few verbs that can head complex passives can’t have dummy subjects (e.g. There), but some of the verbs that can head double passives can. It’s like observing that in English, you can say There is believed to have been an earthquake, but not *There was attempted to be killed.

Having shown how these double passives are different from complex passives, Lødrup then says what they’re the same as: long passives. Long passives are like double passives, except that the embedded infinitive is active. For example, the double passive Others were attempted to be killed would be Others were attempted to kill as a long passive. Surprisingly, Lødrup finds some of these in Norwegian, though they’re less common than Norwegian double passives. By the end of the paper, Lødrup has abandoned the clunky name non-raising passives with passive infinitives in favor of putting these double passives and the long passives under a single label of long passive, though I will stick to having two names. Lødrup also presents examples of double passives (with actual infinitives) and long passives in Swedish and Danish, and takes double passives to be a case of something called verbal feature agreement.

It’s great to get this new information and data about double passives! If you have them in your language (whether English or something else), let me know in a comment!

Posted in Double passives | Leave a Comment »

Anti-Passive! It’s Like a Passive for Ergative Languages!

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2013

This ain't no pasta!

Over the weekend, I speculated on how English might work as an ergative language. Today, on National Grammar Day, I’m taking it a step further into the reversed grammar of ergative languages, to show what might happen if you tried to use the passive voice in ergative English. What would that even look like, when our ergative English already has its transitive verbs agreeing with their patients?

In you’ve forgotten what that looks like, here’s the suite of sample sentences we arrived at in our morphologically and syntactically ergative version of English. The pronouns in red are in the ergative case; they denote agents who do things to others. The pronouns in blue are in the absolutive case; they denote either “subjects” (in this context, someone or something that performs an action which doesn’t directly affect someone or something else), or patients who are affected by an action.

    1. She kiss me.
    2. I kisses her.
    1. Her smiles.
    2. Me smile.

Before I go further, I need to comment on the vocabulary. First of all, the terms agent and patient have to be understood as referring not only to very obviously agentlike roles such as “hitter,” “writer,” and “creator,” and very patientlike roles such as “struck,” “written,” and “created,” but also to pairs such as “seer” and “seen,” or “one who loves” and “one who is loved.” This is true for ordinary English as well as our imaginary ergative variety.

Second, we saw earlier that the term subject has a specialized meaning when we’re talking about whether a language is ergative or not (or more concisely, its morphosyntactic alignment). It’s not just any subject; it’s the subject of an intransitive verb. So what term do we use when we want to talk about the subject of a transitive verb? In the last post, we called them agents, in keeping with the subject-agent-patient terminology of morphosyntactic alignment. But now, the agents aren’t going to be the … subjects? … anymore. In Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, Bernard Comrie’s attitude is “Tough noogies, welcome to the real world!” That is, it’s no simple matter crosslinguistically to say what’s a subject. Is it the thing that the verb agrees with? Maybe, but in some languages, transitive verbs agree with both their agents and their patients. So before reading further, say goodbye to your old notions of what’s a subject. The closest we’ll come is when we note which noun(s) a verb is agreeing with.

So now, onward to passives and antipassives. Ordinary English, as well as many other so-called “nominative-accusative languages” gives you two options for expressing a transitive verb. There’s the more straightforward option of the active voice, with agent as the noun that the verb agrees with (She kisses me; I kiss her); and the more complex passive voice, in which the patient is promoted to the place where verb agreement goes on, and the agent disappears or is expressed in a by phrase (I am kissed (by her); she is kissed (by me)).

In ergative English, the more straightforward option has the patient as the noun that the verb agrees with: She kiss me; I kisses her. The more complex option, analogous to the passive in ordinary English, is the antipassive. To show antipassive, I’ll use the passive morphology from ordinary English, to give you the maximum effect of how things are turned around here. In the antipassive, the agent gets promoted to agree with the noun, and the patient gets moved to the background:

  1. Me am kissed (by her). [Think of it as "I do some kissing (on her)."]
  2. Her is kissed (by me). [Think of it as "She does some kissing (on me)."]

That’s crazy!

Now actually, ergative English probably wouldn’t use an antipassive to express these thoughts. Just as ordinary English tends to use passive in situations where the agent is unknown, unimportant, or just less important than the patient; ergative languages tend to use antipassive when the patient is unknown, unimportant, or less important than the agent. (This is according to Ann Cooreman in “A Functional Typology of Antipassives”, in Voice: Form and Function, 1994, edited by Barbara Fox and Paul J. Hopper.) Functionally, they’re like detransitivized English verbs, such as eat, teach, write, etc. When you say “I’m eating,” or “I’ve taught for years,” or “Write every day,” the patient is assumed to be something obvious: food, courses or students, stuff you write.

Thinking about passives and antipassives, I thought about the disapproval of passives that speakers use to avoid placing (or accepting) blame. “Don’t say ‘Mistakes were made’! Admit your responsibility and just say, I made a mistake’!” If English were an ergative language, would English teachers tell their students, “Don’t say ‘Me am eaten!’ Take responsibility for your actions and say what you ate! Don’t try to gloss over it!”

Well, no, they wouldn’t, because all that was phrased in ordinary English. They’d say … let’s see … “Let no one say ‘Me am eaten’…” Ah, forget it! It was tricky enough to get my ergative examples straight as it was. Right now I am absolutely ergatived out!

Posted in Morphology, Passive voice, Syntax | 6 Comments »

How to Identify Active Voice

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2011

This week, Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote on the active voice. It’s actually part 1 of a two-episode series on passive voice. As Geoff Pullum said of his 2,500-word Language Log post on passive voice, “I can’t make it simpler than it is.” GG and I tried, planning on a single episode to clear up what is and is not passive voice, but eventually decided to split the episode and spend part one establishing just what active voice is. Even that turned out to be a bit much for one episode, so I just aimed to raise listeners’ awareness of the many kinds of active-voice clauses in which the subject is not performing an action. What I left out was a paragraph on my (attempt at a) quick-and-dirty style diagnostic for whether a clause is in the active voice. So here it is for those who are interested. I suggest listening to or reading the Grammar Girl episode first, if you don’t know what I mean by semantic roles. And if you got here because you clicked over from the Grammar Girl website to begin with, welcome!

With all those possible roles for a verb’s subject, how do we know if it’s in the active voice? We need an anchor, something that we know beyond all doubt is in the active voice. Our anchor will be to take the subject and verb and put them in a simple present-tense clause with no helping verbs. No matter what, this kind of clause is in the active voice. Then, we can check the semantic role expressed by the subject in this clause, and if it’s the same one expressed by the subject in the verb phrase we’re interested in, then that verb phrase is also in the active voice. Here’s an example: Is Roscoe is dying in the active voice? Compare the simple present-tense clause Roscoe dies. The subject, Roscoe, is filling a patient role. What about in Roscoe is dying? Here, too, the subject Roscoe is filling a patient role, so Roscoe is dying is in the active voice. Another example: Is Steve has always loved Amy in the active voice? Let’s compare it to Steve loves Amy. In this clause, the subject Steve has the role of experiencer. In Steve has always loved Amy, the subject Steve is still the experiencer, so this clause is in the active voice.

Posted in Passive voice | 8 Comments »

Questionable Intentions

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2011

I was listening to (I believe it was) this episode of The Tobolowsky Files (the podcast I wrote about in this post). At one point in the episode, Tobolowsky said:

It was intended for me to find.

Interesting, I thought. That’s almost like one of those double passives I’ve been collecting. I wrote it down and forgot about it for a while.

Some time later, I was reading an entry on drapetomania on Romeo Vitelli’s blog Providentia (“a biased look at psychology in the world”). Drapetomania was the name of the psychological disorder, peculiar to black slaves, of wanting to escape. The term was coined by a Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851, who said:

If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy.

There it was again! A weird passive clause involving the verb intend and an infinitival verb (to find, to occupy), and … well, let me explain.

So in an ordinary passive clause, the subject is what would be a direct object if the clause were active. Take the passive clause Luigi was called (by Mario). The subject Luigi would show up as the direct object of the main (and only) verb in the corresponding active clause Mario called Luigi. This is true even for transitive verbs that also take an infinitive. For example, take the passive clause Luigi was told (by Mario) to throw the banana peels. The subject Luigi once again shows up as a direct object of the main verb in the active clause Mario told Luigi to throw the banana peels.

But the intend examples are different. Looking at Tobo’s sentence It was intended for me to find, let’s take the subject it and try to make it the direct object of intend in an active clause:

Someone intended it for me to find.

Now that might not actually be bad grammar for everyone. For me it’s pretty shaky, and I’m certain that the equivalent active clause for It was intended for me to find is actually this one, with it as the direct object not of the main verb intended, but of the infinitival verb find:

Someone intended for me to find it.

Somehow the direct object of the embedded verb got promoted all the way up to subject of the main verb. The same with the Cartwright example, whose active-voice equivalent would be something like, this with the subscripted gap as the direct object of occupy, not intended:

…that submissive statei which someone intended for them to occupy __i

In this respect, these intend passives are like double passives such as Others were attempted to be killed. The active version of that sentence would not be *Someone attempted others to be killed, but a clause with others as the direct object of the infinitival verb kill, like this:

Someone attempted to kill others.

The main difference between the double passives and the intend passives is that in the double passive, the main verb and the embedded verb show up as passives (was intended … to find), while in the intend passive, only the main verb does (were attempted to be killed). The reason you don’t get double passivization with intend for X to Y seems pretty clear: You’ve got a second subject intervening between the main verb and the infinitival one. Look what happens if you try to make both verbs passive:

It was intended for me to be found.

Now, all of a sudden, we’re talking about someone finding not “it”, but “me”.

There are other versions of intend for which you can find its infinitival complement passivized. There’s intransitive intend, which can form double passives just like attempt can: Others are intended to be killed. For some speakers, there’s even transitive intend, as in He intends others to be killed. That version of intend isn’t in my active grammar, but if it were, then Others are intended to do be killed would be an unremarkable passive.

Having come across this unusual passive with intend twice, in sources separated by more than 150 years, I wondered how common it was, so I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found a handful more:

  • The love that was intended for us to feel comes up at these times.
  • In this lesson, which was intended for teachers to learn first and then show their students, a group sits in a large circle.
  • This packet was intended for students to use in studying with their parents the content they learned in the music classroom.
  • Because the design is intended for anyone to be able to build, the materials are economical and the shape of the house basic.
  • Signals may be intended for us to detect or they may be deliberately obfuscated to thwart accidental detection.
  • we have revealed a Pandora’s box of events that were never intended for us to see in the first place.

I also found a couple in the British National Corpus:

  • the Spirit had first of all to inspire Peter with his vision of the unclean animals in the sheet which were intended for him to eat
  • since the picture was intended for Handel to keep

And in the Corpus of Historical American English:

  • Ulf Jarl saw the cook’s scullion pour something into a broth that was intended for me to eat.
  • “I knew that was what they were after!” said Mrs. Tetchy to her husband, in a voice that was intended for us to hear.

Not all the results I found when I searched for “[be] intended for * to” were relevant. Some were impersonal passives with a dummy it for a subject, and the direct object of the infinitival verb right where it should be, like this one from COCA:

  • I think it was intended for us to keep our hands and bodies close to the earth.

Other examples have a referential subject that doesn’t really fit syntactically into the infinitival phrase. For these, I have to mentally replace “for X to” with “so that X can”:

  • Iridium always was intended for people to communicate in places where people couldn’t communicate.
  • This is intended for readers to have a general view of Taiwan’s aid programs.
  • Town hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense.

I haven’t checked the Google Books corpus or other corpora, but other examples are welcome, from the corpora or your own experience.

In your own personal English grammar, what do you say? What do you do when you want to say that someone (you don’t know or don’t want to say who) intended you to do find X, and you want to put X as the focus of the sentence? Do you say, “X, I was intended to find”? Do you say “X was intended for me to find”? Or are you just plain out of luck, with recourse only to a complete rephrasing?

Posted in Passive voice | 4 Comments »

Breaking and Entering Double Passive

Posted by Neal on August 20, 2011

I listened to a podcast of PRI’s The Changing World while I was shopping for groceries last week, an episode called “America’s Own Extremists, Part 2″. A BBC guy named Jonny Dymond was interviewing an educator who had been threatened by some white-supremacist types. She said,

Since then, every residence I’ve lived at has been either attempted to be broken into or actually broken into, in some cases burglarized.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about double passives, but this example was so nice I just had to collect it. Passive is a good choice here because first of all, she doesn’t know exactly who did the break-ins (though of course she has strong suspicions), and second, the important thing is that her home feels unsafe. Every residence I’ve lived at has the prominent subject position, with the stuff that happened to it in the passive voice. Except that one of the things that happened is that someone just tried to break in. How do you express that if you’re already pretty well committed to using passive voice? English, at least standard English, doesn’t have a solution, but one that has evolved outside the rules of the standard is just to passivize both try and break into. So we get has been … attempted and to be broken into in the same verb phrase.

I also got a smile out of hearing Dymond ask a follow-up question, asking how the woman had felt when her home was “burgled”, smoothly changing her burglarize into the equivalent British English backformation of burglar.

Posted in Double passives, Variation | 2 Comments »

Gone Ahead and Loaded

Posted by Neal on April 15, 2011

One Sunday morning, Doug finished his waffles and bacon, and began to clear his dishes. As it happened, I had just finished taking the clean dishes out of the dishwasher a few minutes earlier, so I figured Doug could go ahead and load his dirty dishes in there.

That’s right, go ahead and load his dirty dishes. Here and there I’ve heard complaints about the go ahead and locution, on the grounds that it adds unnecessary extra words. The one I saw most recently was from one of Grammar Girl’s listeners, who was quoted in this episode on wordiness and idioms. My opinion is that these words do add some extra meaning. Dave Wilton, author of Word Myths, agreed, writing in a comment on Grammar Girl’s website,

In the case of “go ahead and…” the extra words, depending on the context, emphasize intentionality, emphasize futurity, and the imply that the action is going to be taken without further notice or permission.

The subject also came up in this 1996 thread on alt.usage.english, where Lee Jones wrote,

I think it’s a subtle attempt to imply that the speaker is/was moving the state of things forward.

The connotation I’ve picked up from it is that the action is one that some might think is premature or risky, and go ahead and means, “decide that we have sufficiently considered the risks and can now take action.” My wife likes to use it when she’s talking about spending some money on something expensive. The trouble, and this is where the complainers have a point, is that many people don’t pick up that nuance, and for them, go ahead and really is just three words that don’t add anything.

So anyway, I figured Doug could go ahead and put his dishes in the dishwasher. I gestured to them and said,

The dishwasher’s empty, so those can be gone ahead and loaded.

Be gone ahead and loaded? Where did I get that? I realized that although go ahead and do it can be put into the past tense (went ahead and did it), there really isn’t a good way to put it in the passive voice. I went with putting both go ahead and load into the passive voice, even though it makes no sense to put go ahead into the passive voice by itself, as in *it was gone ahead. Another option to try would have been to put just load in the passive voice, but that sounds pretty bad too:

… *so those can be go ahead and loaded.

So I ended up with gone ahead and loaded. Meanwhile, Doug was going ahead and loading his dishes, and it occurred to me that I could have cut him some slack. This was the morning that he had gotten up on his own instead of being shaken awake at 10:00 or later, had done his homework before having breakfast without my even knowing he was out of bed, and cooking that bacon and toasting that waffle all on his own. All that responsibility-taking, and all I could say was, “Those can be gone ahead and loaded”? I should have just let him leave his dishes on the counter like usual.

Besides, when anyone but me loads the dishwasher, they do it wrong, and I have to take out the dishes and reload them.

Posted in Passive voice | 11 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

Getting a Raise and Losing Control

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2010

I was reading a letter to the editor last month. Near the end, it said,

[W]e are required to rebuke [homosexuals] as well as other sins trying to be imposed as being right in the eyes of God. (James M. McLane, Columbus)

Wow, I thought. This guy can use try as a raising verb!

So what exactly is a raising verb? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I’ll talk some more about the verb try, since we’re already on that subject. In a sentence like I’m trying to help you, the subject of help is understood to be the same as the subject of am trying. It’s as if the verb try has taken its subject, made an invisible copy of it, and plugged it in for its verbal complement help to use as a subject. Syntacticians call this kind of verb a control verb, more specifically a subject-control verb, because its subject is said to “control” the subject slot of the verbal complement. Try, in fact, is the canonical control verb, almost always the one used to introduce the concept in introductory syntax classes.

But I said that James McLane was using try as a raising verb, so what is a raising verb? The canonical raising verb is seem, and at first glance, it behaves like a subject-control verb. In a sentence like Kim seems to like chicken wings, the subject of like is understood to be the same as the subject of seems: Kim. So far, this verb is acting the same as try. But as you look deeper, seem and try don’t behave so similarly after all…

The main difference is that unlike the try, seem doesn’t have anything to say about its subject. If someone is trying to do something, they’re taking actions that they believe will bring it about that they end up doing that something. On the other hand, if someone seems to do something, they might not actually be doing anything at all; all that is necessary is for it to look as if they are. In short, that’s the difference between subject-control verbs and raising verbs: Subject-control verbs say things about their subject, whereas raising verbs don’t.

This difference shows up in several ways. First of all, subjects of seem don’t have to be animate, whereas subjects of try do. Put an inanimate subject with seem, and you find yourself anthropomorphizing and imagining fantasy worlds in which objects have volition. Compare:

Sal tried to hit me.
?The rock tried to hit me.

Seem can even take subjects that don’t refer to anything at all: the so-called expletive or dummy subjects it and there. Try can’t:

It seems to be raining.
?/*It’s trying to rain.
There seemed to be a solution.
*There tried to be a solution.

In fact, the picture that emerges is that raising verbs don’t even have a real subject at all. The only constraints on the subject of seem are the constraints on possible subjects for the infinitive that follows it. For example, even though seem can take unusual dummy subjects, it can only do it when the infinitival verb can take them. For example:

There seems to be a problem.
*There seems to like chicken wings

And notice that if the infinitival complement of seem has any unusual requirements on its subject (like being a dummy subject), those same unusual requirements are imposed on the subject of seem:

It seems to be raining.
*My goldfish seems to be raining.

So when the letter-writer mentions “sins trying to be imposed”, we (or at least I) am forced to imagine sins as having thoughts and plans of their own, consciously doing things to get themselves imposed on on us. However, when I Google “trying to be imposed”, I see that using try as a raising verb isn’t that uncommon. Here are a few examples I just found (culled from a sparse field of a couple of dozen Google hits):

Separate but Equal did not work in the 50s, so why is that principle trying to be imposed on a part of our population?
Kosovo is a tragic joke trying to be imposed on the world.
Many of us have had to put up with a lot of crap trying to be imposed on us from such unfounded beliefs.

But what’s a speaker to do if they just can’t use try that way? That’s where double passive forms like being tried to be imposed come to the rescue for some speakers (though not terribly many). For example:

Islamic Sharia was being tried to be imposed by highly illiterate and negative people of the society…
This is an experiment currently in process in Iran, and being tried to be imposed across the Muslim world.

But if you can’t use try as a raising verb, and double passives are ungrammatical for you, then you’re out of luck. This is a corner in the English language for which nice, clear rules (or workarounds) haven’t emerged yet.

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 20 Comments »

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.

Posted in Double passives | 4 Comments »

 
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