Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Double Your Passive, Double Your Fun

Posted by Neal on May 16, 2005

Now that the trial of central Ohio freeway sniper Charles McCoy has resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors have decided not to try for the death penalty in the retrial. The news made me think back to a year ago, when it was announced that the death penalty would be sought. Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien said:

We are alleging that there was a course of conduct over a period of time in which one person was killed and others were attempted to be killed.

I wrote about this sentence while I was still guest-blogging at Agoraphilia. I was struck by its passive marking on both the matrix verb (was attempted) and the embedded infinitive (to be killed)–something that makes less sense the more you try to parse it like any other passive, but which sounds pretty natural if you just go with it. Since then, I’ve been researching this construction, which I’m calling the Double Passive. It turns out it you can find it being done with many verbs that take infinitives. I now have 30 pages of attestations I’ve collected from doing Google searches for some form of be+[passive participle]+to be+[passive participle], plugging in various infinitive-taking verbs in the first slot. For example, for the verb forget, I searched for the phrases “{am, are, is, was, were, be, been, being} forgotten to be” (as 8 separate searches). Here are some of my favorites, chosen so as to illustrate that all forms of be can be used with the passivized matrix verbs:

  1. I have one that shows you when people are trying to get on and I am attempted to be hacked at least once every time I go online.

  2. For custom orders, full payment must be received before the item is begun to be made.

  3. If any terms or conditions are failed to be followed it will result in grounds for immediate account deactivation.

  4. They are showing signs of abnormal tire wear, as tire rotation was neglected to be performed on time.

  5. I read The 10 Most Hated Tricks article, from April ’03 issue of Skateboarder, and was immediately alarmed when I saw how many tricks were forgotten to be hated on.

  6. In the future, soil will have to be preserved if food is to be continued to be grown.

  7. An exception I will allow here is if a pants-wetting or pants-pooping incident led to the boy being diapered or at least being threatened to be diapered.

  8. Slavery has been tried to be linked to homosexuality and homosexuality linked to slavery – it never should have been done.

I’ve gotten so used to reading double passives by now that the above examples all sound pretty good to me, as long as I don’t try to shoehorn them into the kind of interpretation I’d give an ordinary passive. I can even imagine recursion with the double passive, though I haven’t looked for it: Others were intended to be attempted to be killed (i.e., someone intended to attept to kill others.) But even having come to know double passives, I still can’t accept them with any infinitive-taking verb. Most notably, seem doesn’t work: I can’t get *Others were seemed to be killed. I’ve found examples like that, but very few, and usually in text that’s clearly been written by a nonnative speaker.

9 Responses to “Double Your Passive, Double Your Fun”

  1. Estel said

    Are you interested in odd passives that aren’t doubled? I have one in my files somewhere that also relates to verbs with infinitival complements; I think it’s this:

    “I always get tried to kill”

    with the meaning “(someone) always tries to kill me”

    (The context was a game of Mafia, where the two teams of “mafia” and “townspeople” each try to “kill” all the members of the opposite team)

  2. Neal said

    Wow, was that said by a native speaker? “get tried to kill” follows the pattern of the “Long Passive” of German and other languages.

  3. Estel said

    I’m pretty sure the speaker was a native English speaker; it’s possible, though, that they also speak German or another language. I don’t know them well enough to know their linguistic background with any security.

  4. “the trial of central Ohio freeway sniper Charles McCoy has resulted in a hung jury”

    I wonder why they hanged the jury.

  5. Now seriously (?), while reading a Wikipedia article I stumbled into an example of double passive in Portuguese. I thought it very odd (it does sound weirder than in English), so I checked if it was a translation from English. Sure enough:
    “the Torah, by Orthodox Jews held to be recorded in the time of Moses 3,300 years ago”

  6. Estel said

    I’m back.
    I stumbled across the double-passive construction twice in the historical novel I’ve just finished reading, Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. The first example is “I believe I could tell him anything that can even be attempted to be measured, except perhaps for the new mainyard, and I shall measure that with my tape before dinner.” Unfortunately I’ve lost the place of the second example.

    Also, I checked my files and the quote I was thinking of is indeed “I always get tried to kill”.

  7. Hi,
    I’ve been trying to think of examples in other languages, but the construction is so alien to me, that I resorted to Google to find some.
    For example, you can find examples in French by searching for “a été tenté d’être”, “a été essayé d’être”, “a été oublié d’être”, etcetera (and variations with different gender and number).

    I couldn’t think of examples in Dutch (my native language) and I found only one with Google: “Alle oude culturen, alle oude geloven, zijn geprobeerd omvergeworpen te worden met als grondslag haat.” (“All old civilizations, all old religions, were tried to be overthrown based on hatred.”) They may be harder to find because of the syntax of Dutch, but they may also be rarer in Dutch for that same reason.

  8. […] after I wrote that entry on what I called the double passive, it occurred to me to do another Google search, this time for my freshly minted term instead of […]

  9. […] I’d learned they existed in Turkish as well as in English. For those new to the conversation, this post gives an overview of double passives in English. Now I’ve learned of a few other languages […]

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