Sunday, April 04, 2004

Passive Aggression

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.
This is one of those situations where I say, “I know what you’re trying to say, but I just don’t think it can be said that way.” O’Brien is using the passive voice in order to keep the focus on the events, and the first time he does it, there’s no problem. If you have an idea that would be expressed like (2) in the active voice, phrasing it in the passive, as in (3), is pretty straightforward:
(2) Someone killed one person.

(3) One person was killed.
But what happens when you try to do it with something like (4), where the verb you intuitively want to make passive (kill) is not the main verb?
(4) Someone attempted to kill others.
The main verb here is attempted, and kill is just part of the infinitival complement of attempted. If you put the direct object of kill in front and put the main verb attempt into the passive, you get this:
(5) *Others were attempted to kill.
Eww. That sentence just ain’t right, as I’ve indicated with the *. So what do you do instead? If you’re Ron O’Brien, you go ahead and put kill into the passive, too:
(6) Others were attempted to be killed.
As it turns out, it’s not just the Franklin County Prosecutor who does it. I searched via Linguist’s Search Engine and Google for other instances of some form of be+attempted+to+be+[passive participle], and found plenty of them. Below are a few (the first from LSE, others from Google). Examples also exist with try, but my impression was that more of them came from sites in countries where English is not the primary language.
  • He stated the provision in the State law was attempted to be corrected this year
  • Corrections are attempted to be diagnosed and fixed within a 24 hour period.
  • “During play'” is from the time play is attempted to be started or is started, until “play ends.''
  • Additional major funding for this project will be attempted to be obtained from New York State Insurance Committee
  • Never before has such an eclectic palette of music been attempted to be put into one mix
  • I've never seen so many fakes and forgeries in one area being attempted to be sold as genuine articles.
In fact, I found only one clear example of someone constructing a passive along the lines of (5):
(7) How to handle errors when an IMG/Image is attempted to load?
So, it looks like I was wrong: I know what Ron O'Brien was trying to say with were attempted to be killed, and you can say it that way. It is not an error in sentence planning, but an apparently fairly regular way of putting attempt and try (in their infinitive-taking incarnation) into the passive. What is even more interesting to me, though, is that even though all the example sentences I found make sense, they don’t seem to do so in a semantically compositional way. That is, it’s not enough to know what each word means in were attempted to be killed, and build up the meaning of the phrase piece by piece (as can be done with was killed)—you have to impute some of the meaning to the phrase as a whole. (Either that or just give up and say that the last piece of the meaning doesn’t come from the grammar; we just kinda get it from the context.) In short, these examples support the idea behind a theory known as construction grammar (i.e. that some of the meaning of phrases comes not from any particular word in them, but from the construction of the phrase itself), and pose a problem for strongly lexicalist theories, which assume all meaning of a phrase is wired into individual words and built up into larger and larger parts of the phrase.

UPDATE: Mark Liberman tells me that the kind of passive I attempted in (5) has a name: long passive. Though it is ungrammatical in English, it is fairly common in German. Results of a corpus search for it done by Susi Wurmbrand can be found here. As for whether other languages without long passive use the same double-passive alternative seen here, I don't know.

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