LINGUIST List 2.389

Tuesday, 6 August 1991

Disc: The Perfect Passive Continuous

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Ralf Thiede, English continuous perfect passives
  2. "Bruce E. Nevin", English perfect passives
  3. "(ruce E. Nevin", Linguist vol. 2-383
  4. Leslie, passive perfect continuous in English

Message 1: English continuous perfect passives

Date: Mon, 05 Aug 91 11:37:10 EST
Subject: English continuous perfect passives
In response to Alan Dench <> (Vol-2-383):
Your examples illustrate to me that passivization of continuous perfects
is not ungrammatical in English. You do get some very artificial-sound-
ing sentences, though, so I think there is a contextual constraint. My
guess is that one might want to explore what happens when aspects start
accumulating [though I ask you to treat my suggestion below with a sound
amount of skepticism]:
Charles Beedham observed that "the passive sentence [in English, German
and Russian] portrays both the occurrence of an event and the state
which arises as a result of that event" (45; qtd. from Andersen 196).
Paul Kent Andersen further alluded to his work in progress according to
which a close analysis of the various morphemes employed in passive con-
structions across languages show "that they can be classified as instan-
ces not of a prototypical verbal category passive Voice, but rather of
various other prototypical verbal categories such as Valence (i.e. caus-
ative), Perfect and Agreement" (193).
Suppose now that what we commonly call a passive construction in English
contains a perfective aspect, and that aspects can be combined. Then we
can construct verb phrases with the following aspects:
 The car was cleaned. | perfective
 The car was being cleaned. | continuous + perfective
 The car had been being cleaned. | perfective + continous + perfective
The last combination will accordingly be restricted to contexts in which
it is important to convey (in this case) that an event with a result was
ongoing in the past but is completed now. Usually, we don't need to be
quite that specific and we emphasize either that an event was ongoing or
that it is completed. ^^^^^^ ^^
Of course, this all hinges on the presence of a perfective (or similar)
aspect in passive that can be combined with other aspects. Discussion is
Andersen, Paul Kent. "Typological Approaches to the Passives." Rev. of
 _Passive_and_Voice_, ed. Masayoshi Shibatani. _Journal_of_Linguist-
 ics_ 26 (1990): 189-202.
Beedham, Charles. _The_Passive_Aspect_in_English,_German_and_Russian_.
 Tuebingen: Gunter Narr, 1982.
 Ralf Thiede
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Message 2: English perfect passives

Date: Mon, 5 Aug 91 13:40:39 EDT
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <bnevin%ccb.bbn.comRICEVM1.RICE.EDU>
Subject: English perfect passives
In Linguist List: Vol-2-383. Monday, 5 August 1991, (post 4) Alan
Dench (Department of Anthropology University of Western Australia asks about a budding prescriptivist's
speculation that
>"English does not appear to admit passives in the continuous perfect."
In operator grammar (Harris 1982, 1989, 1990, etc.), the -en of the
passive and the -en of the perfect both have the same source, something
like "a state of". Thus:
(1) My car has been cleaned.
 My car has the state of one cleaning it.
(2) I have been here before.
 I have the state of my being here before.
(3) *George Washington has lived here (before).
 *George Washington has the state of his living here (before).
The problem with (3) is pragmatic: you can't attribute a state to one
who is dead. (Though you can to his remains: "GW has been in this tomb
for years, but they moved him.")
The problem with the combination is the underlying pleonasm. Thus,
for the examples cited:
(4) >My car has been being cleaned all week.
 My car has the state of its being in a state of one's cleaning it all
(5) >My car has been getting cleaned all week.
 My car has the state of its getting a state of one's cleaning it all
(6) >John has been being naughty since this morning.
 John has the state of his being naughty since this morning.
(7) >"How's the research paper going?"
 >"Oh, it's being finished."
 >"Sure! It's been being finished all semester!"
 It has the state of its being in a state of your finishing it all
(8) >"On the instant of recognition, Roger knew that
 >he had been being followed."
 . . . that he had the state of being in a state of someone following him.
Those that work better in the perfect form seem to me to work similarly
better in the unreduced form. (5) may seem less pleonastic than (4)
because of the use of "get". In the first example Alan Dench gave, we
have a collective to which we are perhaps more uncomfortable attributing
a state:
(9) >??An unwashed horde had been being given a lecture [by me].
 An unwashed horde had the state of their being in a state of
 my giving them a lecture.
Note that some of this uncomfortableness adheres to simpler passives:
(10) An unwashed horde had been given a lecture [by me].
 An unwashed horde had the state of my giving them a lecture.
(11) An unwashed horde was given a lecture [by me].
 An unwashed horde was in a state of my giving them a lecture.
This is related to the more obviously grandiose oddity of:
(12) ??China was visited by me.
 China was in a state of my visiting it.
Harris, Zellig S. 1982. _A Grammar of English on Mathematical Principles_.
 	New York: Wiley.
____. 1989. _Language and Information_. New York: Columbia U. Press.
____. 1990. _A theory of language and information : a mathematical approach._
 Oxford: Clarendon.
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Message 3: Linguist vol. 2-383

Date: Tue, 06 Aug 91 14:21:06 BST
Subject: Linguist vol. 2-383
Alan Dench asks about English combinations of perfect + progressive +
passive like
My car has been being serviced all week
(attested by me). Such combinations are possible but clumsy, and grammars
disagree about their grammaticality. The crucial combination is
progressive + passive. When this first appeared (end of 18th century,
early 19th century) it was strictly informal and when finally noticed by
the old guard, the subject of scorn and vituperation right through to the
end of the 19th century. (I'm talking about sentences like
A man was being arrested.
which seem quite innocuous now.)
 I have just completed a book on English Historical Syntax (Longman, 1992),
in which the history of these combinations is discussed at some length. So
far the earliest attestations I have for perf + prog + passive BE are 1858-9
for satirical references in discussions of English grammar, 1929 for 'real'
use. For modal + progressive + passive the dates are respectively
1858-9 and 1915. If anyone has other early attestations I would be very
grateful for the references. I also have quite a lot of data on
precursors of these combinations - which go back a lot further - and
reasons why certain combinations of auxiliaries remained unused long
after the individual auxiliaries had become common.
 Alan Dench also mentions similar combinations with GET rather than BE
as auxiliary of the passive. I have examples of perfect HAVE + passive GET
going back to 1832 so far, Modal + perfect HAVE + passive GET only to the
1950s, progressive BE + passive GET from 1819. So far I have no examples
of modal and/or perfect HAVE + progressive BE + passive GET, i.e.
Jim might be getting treated about now
Jim has been getting treated by a specialist
Jim might have been getting treated by a specialist
To me they are indeed perfectly grammatical, though sometimes you need to
work at the contextualisation a bit. Has anyone out there got any real
attestations, especially from the 19th or early 20th centuries?
There are also some interesting combinations with BE (perfect or passive?)
+ past participle of following verb, in this case GET.
 Finally, in the OED I found a Berkshire dialect example from 1888:
I be got rid o' the doctor, an' I be a-veelin' quite veatish ['healthy']
I toyed with the idea that this was a *triple* passive, but I leave you to
figure out a more plausible analysis.
 David Denison (e-mail: d.denison
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Message 4: passive perfect continuous in English

Date: Tue, 06 Aug 91 10:51:41 EST
Subject: passive perfect continuous in English
I have been teaching a course in English grammar for the last ten years, and ev
ery semester, when I discuss the English tense/aspect/voice system, my students
 are flabbergasted by the passive perfect continuous. They universally reject
it (prescriptivists that they are, especially at the beginning). They cannot b
e convinced that a sentence like 'My car has been being cleaned all week' (Alan
 Dench's) or even 'My car has been being repaired all week' (which I find even
better) is acceptable to anyone. The sentence 'John has been being naughty' is
 fine, but notice that this isn't passive. I also tell my students that I thin
k the problem of the passive perfect continuous sentences is that they are
difficult to process not that they are ungrammatical.
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