Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Double passives’ 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 »

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 »

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 »

Finished Folding

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2008

Not too long ago, we were picking up the house to get ready for some company. (OK, not literally picking up the house, but you knew that, right?) My wife laid out the agenda for the boys and me, pointing out Legos and library books on the living room floor, clutter on the kitchen counter, and a full laundry basket on the bed. As she pointed to that last item, she said:

This needs to be finished folding.

My syntax sensors started tingling. What had set them off? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 14 Comments »

Double Passives in Hebrew, Norwegian, and Danish

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2008

The last time I reported on double passives, it was to say that 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 with double passives.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Double passives, Semantics | 10 Comments »

He Ordered the Tapes to Be Destroyed

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2007

I watched some of the news this morning, and saw correspondent Andrea Mitchell talking about the illegally erased torture videotapes at the CIA. I was very interested to hear if anyone has been arrested for this outrage, or at the very least fired. Needless to say, I’m still waiting. The first line Mitchell spoke was about some arrogant bastard (not her words) in the CIA who had ordered the destruction. I didn’t catch the name, though I’m guessing it was Jose Rodriguez. Anyway, she said:

[Whoever it was] ordered the tapes to be destroyed.

When she said that, I pictured someone standing in front of a stack of videotapes and barking out, “Attention, all you videotapes! This is an order! Be destroyed!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Double passives, Raising and control | 2 Comments »

Double Passives, in English and Turkish

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2007

Back in 2004, I first noticed sentences like these:

Despite intense curiosity, the plot of Gary Trotter and the Deathly Marshmallows was managed to be kept a secret almost until its release date.

Unfortunately, one bookstore’s copies were neglected to be locked away, and an employee posted lots of spoilers on her MySpace page.

The unusual property of sentences like these is that not one but two verbs are put in the passive voice. You can’t say the plot “managed to be kept secret”, because it sounds like the plot is an animate thing, capable of managing to do things. Similarly for the books neglected to be locked away, which implies that books are animate. On the other hand, you can’t say the plot “was managed to keep secret” or that the books “were neglected to lock away”, because those phrasings just aren’t English. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 3 Comments »

A Right-Node Wrapping; a Backformation; and a Double Passive Gone Wrong

Posted by Neal on May 17, 2007

Here are a few recently observed examples of things that I’ve talked about on numerous other occasions.

First, here’s one more right-node wrapping (aka “Friends in Low Places” coordination), from Monday’s episode of Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviews Dr. Melinda Merck, author of book on forensic veterinary medicine. Terry asks about one case:

What was her story, like why was she collecting so many cats and then either killing or allowing them to die? (13.23-13.30)

And also on the subject of veterinary medicine, here’s a backformation I heard at the vet’s office earlier today:

…and here’s his rabie tag; you’ll need to put that on him…

Rabies is a borrowing from Latin; in Latin, it’s a fifth declension noun, and -es is the nominative singular ending, not a plural marker. But in English, rabies has occasionally been interpreted as a plural noun. If it’s a plural noun in your lexicon, then you’ll need to strip off the –s to make it singular in order to form compounds such as rabie tag and rabie shot.

Lastly, here’s an attempt at a double passive that Glen noticed and brought to my attention. It may be that sentences such as The marshmallows were forgotten to be brought (meaning, “Someone forgot to bring the marshmallows”) are ungrammatical in your English. They’re not grammatical in mine, though it would be convenient if they were. But even though they’re not grammatical for me, they don’t quite sound like errors, either. This, though, sounds like an error:

“A lot of guys I know, actually, have become radicalized, or initially took the first steps towards learning more about Islam and their way of life as a result of them being tried to being forced to marry someone they don’t want to marry,” Butt tells Simon. (link)

It would have been better (though still not quite grammatical for me) if he’d said being tried to be forced. As for tried to being, not only is it not in my grammar, I’d bet it’s not in Butt’s grammar either.

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Double passives, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »