Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Double passives’ Category

Richard Lederer on Double Passives

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2006

While driving to pick up Adam from school, I caught part of Fred Andrle’s Open Line program on the radio today. The guest was a language professional, not the lexicographer they had that other time, but none other than Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English, which is the source of a lot of email-propagated language humor (usually presented without any credit given to Lederer). Student writing errors, malapropisms, quotations from church newsletters and other sources with humorous ambiguities: If you’ve ever been forwarded lists of items like these, or (back in the old days) seen them as fifth-generation photocopies on office doors, you’ve probably read Lederer’s stuff. On the program, in between calls from listeners, he was plugging a new edition of Anguished English and his latest book on grammar, which the station was giving copies of to donors who pledged $100.

So anyway, I was listening to Lederer talking with a couple of callers about pronoun case forms, and another caller about some malapropisms, and I decided I’d phone in to see what he had to say about double passives. I listened for the phone number, then dialed it on my cell phone as I sat in the school parking lot.

They answered right away. “Thank you for supporting WOSU, may I take your pledge?”

“Oh, sorry, wrong number,” I said. How embarrassing; I wish people would just hurry up and pledge so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me. I listened again for the right number, and tried again. This time I got through.

Using the example of:

  • I made the kids’ lunch.

  • The kids’ lunch was made.
  • I forgot to make the kids’ lunch.
  • The kids’ lunch was forgotten to be made

I asked Lederer if he’d noticed this kind of passive and had any comments on it. Did Lederer…

…observe that this kind of passive is not such a recent development, being attested in the writings of David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Charles Darwin, and Horace Walpole?

…note that there’s really no other way to turn the kids’ lunch into the subject without a lot of circumlocution?

…point out that while not a typical passive, this passive is no more unusual than passives such as John was rumored to have sent overly friendly emails?

…go into a lecture about how one should Avoid Passive?

…assert that lunch was forgotten to be made made no sense?

…equate use of the passive voice with moral laxity of those who ought to be taking responsibility and saying, “I forgot to make the kids’ lunch”?

No, no, and no; and yes, yes, and yes. To be fair, he qualified the injunction against the passive, saying to avoid it “when you can,” and his advice in the book may be more nuanced. You can hear the podcast on Windows Media for probably another week or so by going here and scrolling down to the 11:00 October 17 show; my exchange with Lederer (with a lot more y’knows and ums than I’d have imagined) is from 44.34 to 46.59.

Posted in Double passives | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Double passives | 4 Comments »

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.

Posted in Double passives | 9 Comments »

Passive Aggression

Posted by Neal on April 4, 2004

Here in central Ohio, they’ve been busy getting the (most recent) highway sniper suspect Charles McCoy indicted, and the latest yesterday was about how Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien will be seeking the death penalty. Here’s what he said, as recorded on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch:

(1) 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.

Posted in Double passives, Ohioana | Leave a Comment »