Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Forcibly Arriving

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2018

Last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. That rather vague name may not ring a bell for you, but if you’ve been hearing news stories about a “lynching memorial,” that’s the place. An article by Kelly Macias in the Daily Kos argued for the need for such a memorial, calling it a

space that is intentionally designed for us to finally have an adult conversation about the generational trauma and terror black people have experienced since we forcibly arrived upon America’s shores

By context and historical knowledge, I could make sense of forcibly arrive: The blacks arrived, but the action wasn’t voluntary; they were taken by force and transported here. But seeing forcibly used in this sentence was surprising to me.

Forcibly, like a number of adverbs, is agent-oriented. To show what this means, let’s compare it to an adverb that is subject-oriented: willingly. In the first sentence below, willingly describes how Dr. Riviera did the examination. In the second sentence, it describes how Homer underwent the examination. In both cases, willingly says something about the subject of the sentence. On the other hand, when we put in forcibly, then in both sentences, it’s talking about Dr. Riviera. Although Riviera is the subject in one, and the object of the preposition by in the other, in both cases he’s the agent.

  1. Dr. Riviera willingly examined Homer.
  2. Homer was willingly examined by Dr. Riviera.
  3. Dr. Riviera forcibly examined Homer.
  4. Homer was forcibly examined by Dr. Riviera.

So I’m accustomed to agent-oriented adverbs with verbs that can be either in active voice (examined) or passive voice (was examined)–i.e. transitive verbs. What about intransitive verbs? Those can work, provided you have a verb that refers to something that can be dumb forcibly:

  1. Bart forcibly jumped over the curb.
  2. ?Marge forcibly slept.

Now let’s talk about arrive. It’s a member of a class of verbs called unaccusatives, whose subjects don’t have the role of agent. Other members include suffer, die, and the intransitive versions of verbs such as melt. These verbs definitely don’t go well with agent-oriented adverbs:

  1. *Seymour forcibly suffered.
  2. *Maud forcibly died.

So now, coming back to arrive, it’s often classified as an unaccusative verb. The subject is not an agent, and since the verb is intransitive, there’s no object to be the agent, either. No agent in sight. And in that case, how does forcibly get to describe the causer of the arriving? My guess at the beginning of this post was “pure context,” and it still is. Maybe it was even a cut-and-paste error, with an original were forcibly transported replaced by arrived, and forcibly never got changed accordingly. However, I can’t say it’s something that people just don’t say or write, because I’ve found a couple of other examples:

  • In Brazil and Cuba, where thousands of African slaves forcibly arrived each year, slavery dominated most economic activities…. (link)
  • With their ancestors having forcibly arrived to the New World enslaved, and with African females becoming “beast[s] of burden,” newly freed southern black … (link)
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