Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Double Your Passive: Update

Posted by Neal on May 26, 2005

Shortly 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 stuff like “+passive +linguistics” or “+passive +infinitive”. And lo and behold, this double passive has been written about, by people who independently came up with the same name for it as I did. I was interested to learn that the double passive is common in Malagasy. However, most of what I found was not from the linguistic literature, but from works on usage. For example, the American Heritage Book of English Usage says:

You may sometimes find it desirable to conjoin a passive verb form with a passive infinitive, as in The building is scheduled to be demolished next week and The piece was originally intended to be played on the harpsichord. These sentences are perfectly acceptable. But itճ easy for things to go wrong in these double passive constructions…. [D]ouble passives often sound ungrammatical, as this example shows: The fall in the value of the Yen was attempted to be stopped by the Central Bank. How can you tell an acceptable double passive from an unacceptable one? If you can change the first verb into an active one, making the original subject its object, while keeping the passive infinitive, the original sentence is acceptable. Thus you can say The city has scheduled the building to be demolished next week and The composer originally intended the piece to be played on the harpsichord. But you cannot make similar changes in the other sentence. You cannot say The Central Bank attempted the fall in the value of the Yen to be stopped.

This quotation divides the examples into good double passives and bad ones. I make the same division, except that I call their good double passives “ordinary passives with verbs that take a direct object and an infinitive,” since they can be generated by the very same rule that allows the direct object of any transitive verb to become the subject in a passive sentence. I reserve the term double passive for what they call the bad double passives, since those can’t be generated by the same rule. Even so, the two passives look an awful lot alike, and it was sometimes tricky to tell them apart when I was doing my corpus-searching late at night. In fact, I think it’s no coincidence that the two are so similar (an analysis that I’m still working out).

The other development since the earlier posting is that there have been some interesting comments. One is from rafael caetano, who offers:

the Torah, by Orthodox Jews held to be recorded in the time of Moses 3,300 years ago

This is a good example of what the usage manual calls a good double passive and what I call an ordinary passive. Notice hold in this sense takes a direct object plus an infinitive (as in “hold these truths to be self-evident”), so the passive sentence can be put in the active:

Orthodox Jews hold the Torah to be recorded…

Other interesting comments come a reader named Estel, who found a sterling literary example for me:

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.

This one fits the pattern, with even the same verb (attempted)as in my first-noticed example.

The trickiest cases of all are those where the verb optionally takes a direct object, for example, expect. The example below is ambiguous between the ordinary passive and double passive readings:

Kim was expected to be whacked.

(Paraphrase for ordinary passive reading) They expected Kim to be whacked, or, They expected someone to whack Kim.

(Paraphrase for double passive reading): They expected to whack Kim.

4 Responses to “Double Your Passive: Update”

  1. Dave said

    Not sure if you’re supposed to be interested, but I’ve caught the literal-minded bug and went hunting for examples of the double passive to see how widespread it is. I found the following on the Time website:,9565,1071930,00.html

    last paragraph: I think people with drug problems, alcohol problems, burglaries, thefts, car-jackings, anything that’s not a violent crime, should be tried to be treated through rehab.

    At first I thought that this might simply be a different meaning of ‘to try’ (to put someone through a trial), but the context suggests to me that this is not the case.

  2. Neal said

    Thanks, Dave, that’s a good example of a double passive.

  3. Your AHBEU link is munged; it should be (By the way, I’m linking to this in a LH post.)

  4. Idetrorce said

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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