Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Passive voice’ Category

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.

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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 »

Special Needs

Posted by Neal on January 29, 2010

Around these parts, there’s an unusual kind of syntactic construction used to express necessity. I first heard about it in a class on historical linguistics, but didn’t hear it “in the wild” (as we linguists say) until I was married and heard my brother-in-law say at a cookout,

The burgers need flipped.

That is, where I would say “The burgers need to be flipped”, this construction has the passive participle (flipped in this example) right after need. This needs done construction is one of the features of Appalachian English, although it also shows up in varieties of English north of the Appalachians. Since I heard that first example, I’ve heard many others from many people. It’s part of my wife’s dialect, so Doug and Adam have acquired it, too.

In light of my personal experience with needs done, I was interested to hear a talk at LSA 2010 by Dan Brassil called “A Middle Voice in Appalachian English”. He was making an interesting claim: That needs done is not a case of passive voice; in other words, it’s not just the same kind of structure as needs to be done with the to be omitted, as has been argued in the past. Instead, he claims that it’s an example of middle voice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in LSA, Passive voice, Variation | 26 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 »

It Was Never Said Anything About

Posted by Neal on February 25, 2007

Last month, I said in one of my posts that it sounded like Ira Glass, host of “This American Life”, had a uvular /l/. Justin “Semantic Compositions” Busch decided to hear for himself, and after doing so commented, “I can convince myself that I hear the uvular nasal when Ira Glass says his name at the 25:48 mark in the 1/5/07 broadcast, but most of the tokens of his /l/ don’t trigger that sensation for me at all.”

Since that time I’ve listened to a lot more of the weekly podcasts and archived MP3s (they’re somewhat addictive, even though they’re not all equally interesting), and I’m sticking with my call. The uvular /l/ is most perceptible at the beginning of words and in word-initial consonant clusters, not quite so much so intervocalically (between vowels), and hardly at all word-finally. If, like Busch, you want to hear some of these uvular /l/s for yourself, you can browse episodes to listen to here.

One of the more interesting episodes is “Family Legend”. As a bonus, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Circumstantial passives, What the L | 1 Comment »

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 »