Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts

Posted by Neal on August 9, 2016

I was reading an article in one of the issues of New Scientist magazine that that tend to accumulate around here, and came across this sentence:

The benefits of unsaturated fats, traditionally seen as good for the heart, may vary due to their omega-3 content, which is thought could have anti-inflammatory effects.

It seemed to me there was a word missing. In my ESL composition classes, we sometimes talk about “complex passives” as a means of reporting some claim or discovery when it’s not important who made the claim or discovery. For example, suppose we’re starting with the following claim:

  1. Unicorns fart rainbows.
Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Unicorn-Flying-Rainbow-Fart-Cloud, courtesy of Eye Candy by Referral Candy (Creative Commons)

Now let’s suppose we’re not prepared to support this claim, so we want to say it’s someone else who believes it:

  1. Some people think that unicorns fart rainbows.

Next, let’s say you still want to put more focus on the claim than on the unnamed people who believe it. Two rather unusual versions of the passive voice, known as complex passives, will let you do this. One of them makes use of a dummy it, and leaves the entire clause unicorns poop rainbows unchanged:

  1. It is thought that unicorns fart rainbows.

The other kind of complex passive allows you to put the focus more specifically on unicorns, by turning the subject of the embedded clause (unicorns) into the subject of the passive reporting verb (are thought–note the change from is to are to agree with unicorns), and turning the remainder of that embedded clause into an infinitive phrase (to poop rainbows), like so:

  1. Unicorns are thought to fart rainbows.

Now let’s suppose that we want to combine that last sentence with this next one, by means of a relative clause:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns.

One way of doing it is to take item #4 and use it as the basis for your relative clause. I’ve shown this by color-coding the word unicorns and the place where this word has been removed from the embedded clause, which I’ve labeled “GAP”:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which GAP are thought to fart rainbows.

A somewhat more awkward way of doing it is to use item #3, with the dummy it, and use that as your basis:

  1. Silicon Valley startups that are valued at a billion dollars are called unicorns, which it is thought GAP fart rainbows.

So depending on which kind of complex passive you go with, your relative clause will have either (1) an infinitive after your reporting verb, or (2) a dummy it, and then a finite verb phrase after your reporting verb. The sentence from New Scientist stuck out because it has a finite verb phrase (could have anti-inflammatory effects), but no dummy it!

Thanks to New Scientist, I’ve become aware of several idioms and unusual syntax in British English, such as down to to mean “attributable to,” the usage of so to conjoin verb phrases (as opposed to entire clauses), and it’s early days for X to mean “X is a field or endeavor in its infancy.” So maybe this was thought could phrasing was a British English thing. However, after searching the NS website for strings such as “are thought could” and “is thought might”, the only example I found was one that used both a dummy it and a finite verb:

…immediately after being given hormone treatment to harvest their eggs – which it is thought could impair the process of implantation.

It occurred to me that it might be no accident that the finite verb in this unusual sentence was a modal verb. After all, if the claim they’re talking about is something like this–

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

–and you go for the complex passive that allows you to put unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content at the front of the sentence, then you need to make could into an infinitive, but English modal verbs don’t have infinitives. So what do you do? Maybe you just leave the verb as it is, and end up with:

  1. Unsaturated fats’ omega-3 content could have anti-inflammatory effects.

Then, when you turn that into a relative clause, you get out item #1. With that hypothesis, I predicted I would not find similar examples with ordinary (aka “lexical”) verbs if I went searching through some corpora. And mostly, I didn’t. Here’s what I found from the BYU British National Corpus:

  • …if he is to join the powerful Irish representation which is anticipated will cross the Atlantic to take on the Americans…
  • Thus a rise in monetary growth which is anticipated will have no effect on the level of unemployment.
  • Duty (charged at one per cent) on properties costing less that 250,000, which is hoped will kick-start the housing market.

Here’s what I found in BYU’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):

  • And with a slightly increased budget of $50 million–much of which is assumed will go to leads asking for heftier paydays, location shoots in Italy, and ramped-up F/X–Summit will have to scrimp somewhere.

And here’s what I found in their NOW corpus:

  • Reportedly, both drinks can often be high in polyphenol, a nutrient which is believed could give chocolate its beneficial effects on health.
  • …leading to the development of a dilation zone which is believed could hold significant mineral potential.
  • Beijing claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed could sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
  • His sin is his godson relationship with Obasanjo which is believed could be used against the incumbent president in 2015 if Andy becomes governor.
  • …including the on-going electronic voters registration which is believed could deny millions…

So yay, my hypothesis stood up … until I found this example in BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English (COHA):

  • The following is nearly all we could glean, which was thought had reference to the subject under consideration (1841)

Fluke? Did someone just forget to put in that short, meaningless it? Or is it possible that this construction got started with modal verbs as a workaround, and then got extended to lexical verbs (and it’s just by chance that the earliest example I found involves a lexical verb)?

I don’t know. How do these examples sound to you? Have you heard or read others? Let’s have them!

4 Responses to “Relative Clauses, Complex Passives, and Rainbow Farts”

  1. James said

    43yo British English speaker here. To me the versions without “it” also sound wrong. It feels like someone could be used to hearing the construction with “it’s”, and mishears “it’s” as “is”?

    By the way, there is an alternative and simpler way to parse the construction without going via 3. Sometimes this is indicated directly by putting commas or parentheses around “it is thought” or “it is believed” or the like. For example, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2011/11/central-banks-act :

    > … second, by creating “co-investment funds” that (it is hoped) will attract money from other investors and which can be deployed to buy bonds.

    Here it looks like a straightforward variation on the simple relative clause “funds that will attract money” and the “it is hoped” seems to play the same role that would be played by an adverb like “supposedly” or “apparently”. In this version the “(it is hoped)” could even be placed after the “will” rather than before it, which seems impossible to explain via the complex passive set-up.

    • Neal said

      True, I didn’t have much (well, anything) to say about the option of setting off it is thought by commas or parentheses. That option certainly exists, but I don’t think it’s the same structure as the one without commas or parentheses for the very reason you mention: You can put it in other positions that allow adverbs. Plus, there’s the intonational difference.

  2. dialmformara said

    I see two ways to make “which is thought could have effects” grammatical: either “which it is thought could have effects” (it referring to omega-3 content), or “which is thought to have effects.”

  3. “Which is thought could” sounds ungrammatical to me. Even “which it is thought could” is pretty bad. If I came across such a sentence in my editing, I’d definitely change it to “which is thought to”.

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