double passive (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).


In traditional English grammar, the double passive is a sentence or clause that contains two verbs in the passive, the second of which is a passive infinitive.

Henry Fowler called the double passive an "ugly construction" (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 1926). In The Careful Writer (1966), Theodore M. Bernstein observed that some double passives "are merely awkward, or expressions of gobbledygook: 'Illumination is required to be distinguished.'" Others, he said, are "downright ungrammatical as well as maladroit: 'The runaway horse was attempted to be stopped by the policeman.'"

However, Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner qualify such criticism of the double passive: "Usage books sometimes warn against all such structures, but their acceptability in fact varies" (The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 1994). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Any money that one member earns is expected to be distributed throughout the rest of the extended family."
    (Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. Portobello Books, 2008)

  • "As the visual in visual anthropology took on greater importance and was seen to be implicated in a much broader range of media practices, film viewing seemed to take on added importance alongside other viewing practices as part of the larger dynamics of visual culture."
    (Stephen Putnam Hughes, "Anthropology and the Problem of Audience Reception." Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology, ed. by M. Banks and J. Ruby. University of Chicago Press, 2011)

  • "The press reaction to the growing scandal was scathing, as it appeared that the files were requested to be used against President Clinton's political enemies, potential and real."
    (Mark Grossman, Political Corruption in America. ABC-CLIO, 2003)

  • "A woman was ordered to be released immediately because she had provided information leading to the arrest of several other people who had plotted to escape to Hong Kong."
    (Nien Cheng, Life and Death in Shanghai. Grove Press, 1987)

  • Acceptable and Unacceptable Double Passives
    - "It is sometimes necessary 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. Sentences like these are perfectly acceptable, but these 'double passive' constructions can often cause trouble. For instance, they sometimes end in ambiguity. . . . What is worse, double 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.

    "Here's how to tell an acceptable double passive from an unacceptable one. If the first passive verb can be changed into an active one, making the original subject its object, while keeping the passive infinitive, the original sentence is acceptable. . . . If such changes cannot be made, then the original sentence is not acceptable. Note that these changes cannot be made in the Central Bank sentence, since they would produce an ungrammatical result: The Central Bank attempted the fall in the value of the yen to be stopped.

    "This is all very technical and involved, however, and it is much simpler just to judge the sound and flow of the sentence. If a double passive sounds awkward or tinny, rewrite the sentence."
    (The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

    - "[The double passive] occurs with verbs such as attempt, begin, desire, endeavour, propose, threaten,, and others involving constructions with a passive infinitive, as in The order was attempted to be carried out / No greater thrill can be hoped to be enjoyed. Clearly these types are often extremely awkward in not corresponding to a comparable active form. (*They attempted the order to be carried out / *We hope no greater thrill can be enjoyed), and a fully active construction should be used whenever possible: They attempted to carry out the order / We can hope to enjoy no greater thrill; in some cases the sentence can be rephrased, e.g. There was an attempt to carry out the order. Other verbs, such as expect, intend, and order, which are grammatically more versatile, will allow a double passive construction; we can say, for example, They ordered the deserters to be shot, and therefore the double passive form The deserters were ordered to be shot is acceptable."
    (Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., edited by Robert E. Allen. Oxford University Press, 2008)