Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Passive voice’ Category

Subject and Object Gaps in Coordinated Relative Clauses

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2006

Last year, I wrote about reading Doug a book I’d read when I was his age and held onto all these years. At that time I found an unusual usage of the word enjoy where I’d have expected suffer from. Now I’m reading the same book aloud to Adam, with Doug listening in and keeping his spoilers to himself. And what do you know–I’ve found another linguistically interesting quotation in the book. Here it is:

In the another corner they’d found a creeper, which [Tubby had left behind], and [was particularly helpful].
(Clifford B. Hicks, Alvin’s Swap Shop, p. 32)

It’s another coordination of relative clauses in which one is missing an object (Tubby had left    ) and one is missing a subject (    was particularly helpful). Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Passive voice, Subject and object gaps | 3 Comments »

Funky Winkerbean Explains the Passive Voice

Posted by Neal on June 11, 2006

Les Moore of Funky Winkerbean. This is one English teacher whose students are going to know less about English when they finish his class than when they started:


Let’s see: “Active voice sentences are those in which your subject, verb, and direct object follow directly along behind each other.” OK, first of all, how can two things be behind each other? All right, if two people stand back to back, I guess they would be behind each other, but how does this apply to words? Let’s call the beginning of the sentence the front; then in a sentence such as She eats the chips, She is in front, eats follows behind She, and the chips follows behind eats. Which two words are behind each other? Second, what if the sentence doesn’t have a direct object, as in They laughed?

Next: “Passive voice sentences turn the order around, placing the object first and the subject last.” Pity poor lovestruck Darin if he tries to follow this rule…

“So the passive of She eats the chips would be The chips eats she? What did you say, Mr. Moore? Eats needs to agree with the chips? But I thought you said verbs always had to agree with their subjects, and she is the subject, right? Uh, whatever. OK, so it would be The chips eat she, right? Why not? The chips are eaten by her? Hey, you never said I had to do stuff to the verb! And if she isn’t the subject, is it the direct object after all, just like in an active voice sentence? Does it still count as a direct object if you put in a by?”

And what will Mr. Moore’s students make of sentences like, The chips were eaten, with no subject (or direct object, whatever) at all? Oh, well, at least the cartoonist didn’t have him calling it the passive tense.

Posted in Passive voice, You're so literal! | 6 Comments »

Another Circumstantial Passive?

Posted by Neal on March 20, 2006

Doug thought it was the coolest thing when one of the onions in our pantry sprouted. He wanted to plant it. “We won’t have to buy any more onions at the grocery store,” he said. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if we planted it. Since onions are root vegetables, I couldn’t expect this onion to produce a little onion bush with onions hanging from its branches. But I just said, “Sure, OK,” and planted the onion in a small pot. For the next week, the sprouting stalks grew taller, breaking off here and there when the cats nibbled on them; the whole thing smelled more and more oniony; and about once a day my wife would ask what Doug and I were planning on doing with that onion.

When the weekend came, the leaves were all starting to wilt, and the onion could be smelled from across the kitchen. That’s when my wife said,

That will have to be done something with today.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Circumstantial passives | 2 Comments »

Doug’s Circumstantial Passive

Posted by Neal on September 4, 2005

In researching the double passive in English, I’ve been reading a few articles on Malagasy, which has a similar construction. I’ve learned that Malagasy not only has a double passive, but that it actually has two kinds of passive voice, an ordinary one and one called the circumstantial passive. I’ll illustrate with examples adapted from Paul Law’s 1995 article “On grammatical relations in Malagasy control structures” (in the book Grammatical Relations, edited by Clifford S. Burgess, et al.). First, there’s a sentence in the active voice:

hanasa        ny   lamba   amin’  ity    savony ity    Rasoa
wash.ACT  the clothes  with    this  soap     this  Rasoa
‘Rasoa will wash the clothes with this soap’

In Malagasy, the subject comes last, as seen with the placement of Rasoa above. Now we’ll do an ordinary passive, with the direct object ‘the clothes’ becoming the subject (and therefore appearing at the end of the sentence):

sasana-dRasoa              amin’  ity    savony ity    ny   lamba
wash.PASS-by-Rasoa  with    this  soap     this  the  clothes
‘The clothes are washed with this soap by Rasoa’

Now what if you wanted to make ‘this soap’ the subject? In English, you can’t. It’s not just that ‘this soap’ is the object of a preposition instead of a direct object: Sentences like This bed has been slept in or We were fired upon are quite common. But for some reason it just doesn’t work when the verb takes a direct object as well as a prepositional phrase. You end up with something weird like This soap was washed-the-clothes-with by Rasoa. For this soap to be the subject, you have to do a major workaround, something like This soap was used by Rasoa to wash the clothes. In Malagasy, though, it’s not a problem. You just have to have the right tool, and that tool is the circumstantial passive. Use the circumstantial passive form of ‘wash’, and then ‘this soap’ can go right into the subject position:

anasana-dRasoa           ny   lamba    amin’  ity    savony ity
wash.CIRC-by-Rasoa  the  clothes   with    this  soap    this
‘This soap is washed-the-clothes-with by Rasoa’

I was happy to find out about this kind of passive voice, not just because it was an interesting detail to learn about another language, but because now I have a name for something Doug said about three years ago. He was looking for a packet of some gumdrop-like snacks in the shape of characters from Scooby-Doo. (They’re called, rather misleadingly, Scooby Snacks, even though they don’t look or–I assume–taste anything like the doggy treats that Scooby and Shaggy love so well.) He found several empty bags that someone else had inconsiderately put back in the box, but finally found an intact one, and said:

This one hasn’t been eaten-any-Scooby-Snacks-out-of!

It was so jarring and just plain wrong, and yet so sensible at the same time, that I had to write it down. I don’t think Doug’s grammar will generate sentences like this one anymore, but now I know that at one point in time, Doug’s emerging English grammar was equipped with circumstantial passive functionality.

Posted in Circumstantial passives, The darndest things | 1 Comment »

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 »

Passing for Passive

Posted by Neal on August 6, 2004

Occasional commentator trumpit sent me a link to this article by Michael Hiltzik in the LA Times. It starts out like this:

…a pattern of speech that grammarians might call the impersonal passive voice has gotten quite a workout in the business world this summer.

Now over at Language Log there have been several postings on writers who criticize other writers for using language that avoids naming names when it comes to responsibility for various actions. The complaint that Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum make is that these writers always seem to confuse the non-technical meaning for the word passive (i.e., “not taking action”) and the technical grammatical meaning of it–a syntactic construction in which the agent of an action may be left unstated, and the undergoer is expressed as the subject. To use an example that Hiltzik uses, the sentence Crimes were committed suggests that it isn’t known who actually committed the crime. The speaker of such a sentence presents himself or herself as a passive observer, not (as is often the case) the agent of the action.

But that’s not what makes Crimes were committed a passive sentence! What makes it passive is the verb phrase consisting of a form of be (namely were) and the passive participle committed. If it doesn’t have these two things, or at least the second one if the first is understood, it’s not a passive sentence. The writers that Liberman and Pullum criticize focus their attention on verb phrases such as took on racial overtones, [military intelligence] has instructed us to…, and bus blows up, and the verbal noun (or nominalization) shooting with no agent specified. Liberman and Pullum note that even though all these examples do indeed avoid naming the agent, or put responsibility on someone other than the actual agent, they are not passive sentences.

So how does Michael Hiltzik do? He starts out fine, with the genuine passive example mentioned above, but then falls into the same trap as the others. The good news is that he seems to recognize that not all passive sentences avoid expressing an agent–he employs the term impersonal passive, implying that there are passives that aren’t impersonal. This is true: You could say, “Crimes were committed … by me!” The bad news is that this term is already taken! There is such a thing as an impersonal passive, but it doesn’t exist in English. Here’s how it works:

In a sentence like I committed a crime, the noun phrase a crime is the direct object of committed, and is expressed as the subject in the equivalent passive sentence, A crime was committed. But what if you have a verb that doesn’t take a direct object, such as smile? How do you make I smiled into a passive, if there’s no direct object to turn into the subject? In English, you can’t, and that’s all there is to it. In languages with impersonal passive (for example, German), you can, and it literally translates as, “It was danced.” In other words, there was some dancing going on, but who was doing it isn’t relevant.

“a pattern of speech that grammarians might call the impersonal passive voice” indeed. Might, but shouldn’t. And after this unfortunate choice of terminology and the one genuine example of the passive voice, there’s not another passive to be seen in all the quotations Hiltzik gives from Martha Stewart and Ken Lay. Here they are:

  • “an … event of unprecedented proportions spreading like oil over a vast landscape” (Stewart)
  • “the perception of my conduct” (Stewart)
  • “the loss of my company, my failure to be able to save it and the tremendous hardship it caused so many employees, retirees, and others” (Lay)

Certainly, all these quotations show Stewart and Lay avoiding responsibility for their actions, but they do it with active verbs whose subject is not a person (spreading, caused), nominalizations with no agent specified (loss), an implication that there is a mistaken perception, and the invited assumption that someone who tries to save something is never the one who destroyed it in the first place (my failure to save it).

In all fairness, I think there should be a term covering this kind of accountability-avoiding language, including passive voice, agentless nominalizations, and verbs whose subject is the undergoer instead of the agent (spread, happen, etc.). But still, if someone wants to make some significant point (sociological or otherwise) that is damningly revealed in people’s use of language, they ought to make sure they know what they’re talking about, and not just rely on a gained-from-context or common-sense understanding of a technical grammar term.

Posted in Passive voice, Prescriptive grammar | 5 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 »