linguistics and lexicography Love English

The double passive is suggested to be avoided (sometimes)

©  Royalty-Free / CorbisIn the annals of writing advice the passive voice is subject to much unfair criticism. In non-specialist contexts, such as news journalism and public discussion, the situation is still worse, with misidentification often added to the mix – many people who peremptorily condemn the passive are ignorant of what it is, let alone when it might be preferred. Focus seldom falls on the lesser-known double passive, but this construction is worth consideration in its own right.

The double passive, as its name suggests, is when a phrase contains two passive constructions yoked together. There’s one in the title of this post. How acceptable it is depends principally on how legible or awkward is the result. Phrases like ‘It must be seen to be believed’ and ‘He was sentenced to be shot’ are fairly straightforward and unobjectionable. ‘The order was attempted to be carried out’ (a line cited in Burchfield’s revision of Fowler) begins to pose a problem, because it’s unnecessarily complicated.

Double passives are not particularly common. I see them mostly in academic and technical prose, where the convention of avoiding first-person narration leads to phrases like: ‘The findings are believed to have been supported’. This example is not especially unwieldy but would be improved by structuring it more directly: ‘It is believed the findings were supported’, where the second passive is not an infinitive parcelled inside the first. Better again if we know who believes it: ‘Smith (2000) believes the findings were supported’. Or if we believe it, and can say so: ‘We believe the findings were supported’. If it’s important that the findings be foregrounded, we can begin with ‘The findings were supported’ and address evidentiality later, or with a modifying adverb like seemingly.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English warns against double passives on the grounds of ‘effectiveness, efficiency, and style’. Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage considers them ‘awkward and potentially ambiguous’ and also recommends avoiding them. It offers the example: ‘the work of redesigning the office space was requested to be done by outside contractors’, where it’s not clear whether the contractors wanted the work to be done or were meant to do the work themselves. A good editor will notice such ambiguities and disambiguate them by reordering the sentence.

It’s generally more a matter of clarity than grammar. A double passive may be grammatically flawless yet stylistically unattractive or semantically murky. There is no hard-and-fast rule for double passives. In certain contexts, for example legal ones, they may be especially useful, even necessary sometimes. But if you can rewrite at least part of the phrase more directly and still say exactly what you need to say, you probably should.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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