Puzzling passive

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Every so often I come across a passive sentence that puzzles me: why did someone write this? Last month I posted about one such case on my blog, but there you could imagine how the sentence arose. My most recent find just looks perverse, and it has an awkward adverb placement as well.

This is the caption to a photograph (of an aged woman smoking a pipe) on a postcard:

Ralston NB: 92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that five pipefuls of tobacco are daily smoked by her! 

(The photograph, dated 1925, is credited to Underwood and Underwood, with copyright by Underwood Photo Archives, Ltd. in San Francisco. The postcard is from Pomegranate Communications, Inc.)

Why this, rather than:

92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that she smokes five pipefuls of tobacco daily.


92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to smoking five pipefuls of tobacco daily.

Meanwhile, though I have nothing against "split verbs" (see my recent blog posting, with links to earlier Language Log postings), "are daily smoked by her" strikes me as more awkward than "are smoked by her daily".

So it's a thorough puzzle.


  1. Mark P said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    It sounds like a non-native English speaker wrote it, but I have no idea why that would have happened in San Francisco.

  2. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    If "NB" is for New Brunswick, Canada's "only officially bilingual province", could it be that whomever penned, "…are daily smoked by her" wrote English but spoke another language that influenced the construction?

  3. dw said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    Perhaps the author was accustomed to reciting this line from the Lord's Prayer:

    Give us this day our daily bread

    It is not uncommon for "our" and "are" to be homophonous, in which case the parallel between "our daily bread" and "are daily smoked" may have suggested itself, either consciously or unconsiously.

  4. acilius said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    It is strange that so vivid a topic should find so vacant an expression. As I read the sentence, the three elements most heavily emphasized seem to be, first, "92-year old Grandma" (sentence opening,) "the fact that" (opening of major subdivision,) and "by her" (close, marked for emphasis by the rising intonation the exclamation point signals.) "92 year old Grandma" is vivid enough, but the other two clausulae are as empty as can be.

    If I'd been the editor of Underwood and Underwood's caption department in 1925, I'd have suggested this phrasing: "92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the five pipefuls of tobacco she smokes daily!" That would put the rhetorical emphasis, if not the grammatical agency, squarely on the tobacco. Though "daily" may not be colorful in isolation, as an expansion of "five pipefuls of tobacco" it brings something very definite to the nostrils.

  5. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    I strongly suspect a verbatim or near-verbatim translation from another language.

  6. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Apart from just being awkward, the passive here seems to me to increase the salience of the (absurd) reading in which "five pipefuls of tobacco" takes wide scope relative to the adverb "daily" (i.e., in which it's the same five pipefuls of tobacco each day).

  7. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    Although the sentence seemed silly the first time I read it, it seems less odd on each succeeding reading, especially if I imagine someone speaking those words. I think that if you check the corpus you'll find plenty of examples of utterances ending "…by him/her".

    btw, Janice, it's "_whoever_ penned…"

  8. Tom Recht said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    I think this is just standard-issue early-twentieth-century verbal waggery. Assuming the caption dates from 1925, in those days incongruous oversophistication of language was the bread and butter of humorists – most often in the form of gratuitously polysyllabic word choice, but distorted syntax would do just as well.

  9. MikeyC said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    Maybe someone just thought the commas would appear "ugly" and so left them out.

    Ralston NB: 92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that five pipefuls of tobacco are, daily, smoked by her!

    As for "why the passive?", God only knows.

  10. MikeyC said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    Here are a few I filched from the BYU-OED website.

    1. "Several seditious and heretical books,.. are daily published, stamped and printed by divers.. persons."

    Charter Stationers Co. 1556.

    2. "There are many Indians that are daily hired.. "

    Source not stated. From 1558.

    3. "The treasurer.. makes little use of those thousand projectors and schematists, who are daily plying him with their visions."

    Let. to Abp. King 26 Aug.,. 1711

    4. "These swamps are daily clearing and improving into large fruitful rice plantations."

    Carolina 10. 1791

    See http://corpus.byu.edu/oed/ for more.

  11. MikeyC said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    Sorry, should have added a contemporary example:

    5. 1973. Sunday Times 7 Oct. 46. "Forty-four-thousand gallons of sterile milk are daily railed from Anand to Bombay."

  12. Miguel RM said,

    June 30, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    If the comment is also from 1925, then most likely it is non-native English. In San Francisco, in Chinatown, there is a restaurant that holds a collection of pictures of Chinese immigrants. All of them have comments in non-native English (made by Chinese immigrants, I think).

  13. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    To several commenters: I didn't say that the photo was from San Francisco, only that the Underwood archives are now located there. Underwood and Underwood was established in 1880 in Ottawa, Kansas. Eventually branch offices were established in several places in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, and the main office relocated to New York City in 1891. The firm was a major source of news photos for many years.

    Even if the photo had been from San Francisco, there were plenty of native speakers of English there in the early 20th century, and of course there were plenty of non-native speakers all over the place at the time.

    Tom Recht is probably right when he suggests that it was just verbal waggery.

  14. Franz Bebop said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 1:26 am

    I agree with Tom Recht. The sentence reads like it was written by a tone-deaf native speaker who understands the rules of grammar but has no idea how to compose a beautiful sentence.

    In my head, that sentence conjures up a writer who has had all their native instincts beaten out of them by old grammar books and a series of crusty schoolteachers. And perhaps their instincts weren't good to begin with.

  15. John Walden said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 2:02 am

    A long shot: Could that "by" mean "next to"?

    Ralston NB: 92-year-old Grandma Hayes attributes her long life and good health to the fact that five pipefuls of tobacco are daily smoked in her presence.

  16. MikeyC said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 5:54 am

    Another example, this time from COCA:

    1. "That belief in progress was higher, theological; and it was outside the events that we saw daily reported in our newspapers."

    Southwest Review. 2008.

  17. Matt said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    A slight tangent… with the strange positioning of daily, I wondered what would happen if you replaced it with another adverb.

    Ignore the bizarre passive voice for a second… to me, "five pipefuls of tobacco are regularly smoked by her" sounds a lot less weird. On the other hand, "five pipefuls of tobacco are smoked by her regularly" is starting to get a bit strange. Try replacing 'regularly' with 'happily' in both positions and the difference is even more marked – happily has to come before smoked.

    Any ideas why having daily there seems so strange?

  18. Zwicky Arnold said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 7:29 am

    To MikeyC: interesting data, but I merely said that in the original example I found one adverb placement less awkard than an alternative, not that I found the actual placement in the caption unacceptable, and I suggested no generalization. I gave a personal judgment on one example.

    In fact, I have a similar judgment about most of the other examples you found of preverbal daily. Other adverbials work differently; for many, preverbal position is the most natural. But putting daily (and every day and some other adverbials) in this position focuses on the adverbial — in many cases, too heavily, in my judgment.

    That said, your examples are of four different sorts: be passives ("are daily published", "are daily hired", "are daily railed"); a be-less passive ("saw daily reported"); a be progressive conveying passive meaning ("are daily clearing and improving" 'are daily being cleared and improved'), a construction that is now very rare, though it was once standard and frequent; and an ordinary progressive ("are daily plying"). It might be that the different types work differently.

  19. MikeyC said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 10:17 am

    I understood your comment as a personal comment, Arnold. No problem there. I just wanted to check out that positioning of "daily" for myself, and share the findings.

  20. Rich B. said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

    "Daily smoked" also sounds awkward to me, but seems to be in a piece with "gay married" or — as I saw online this morning — "primary challenged," as in Joe Sestak is primary challenging Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

  21. Dan said,

    July 1, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    Obviously the writer is using the passive to protest against Strunk and White. :-)

    Random thought: "A Good Time Was Had by All" was apparently the name of a book of poetry published in the 30s, although I haven't found anything that says if it invented that phrase or just made use of it. But either way, maybe there was a "silly overuse of the passive" fad? (Which of course, the grammar curmudgeons of the day would have railed against…)

  22. Aaron Davies said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 12:59 am

    @Dan: reminds me of "A splendid time is guaranteed for all"

  23. MikeyC said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    My new twist on the Lord's Prayer for those who have been made to feel guilty for causing the worldwide population explosion:

    "Forgive us this day our daily bred."

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