The ghost of complex English auxiliary strings

« previous post | next post »

In connection with the previous post, and in the spirit of the season, I can't resist adding this:

The source is the Savage Chickens cartoon for 12/21/2005.

As one of the commenters on the cartoon points out, it would help to make the sentence unambiguously passive if "by" were substituted for "with", since "He is disappointed with his life" might just involve the copular verb "is" followed by the adjective "disappointed".

The same commenter suggested that The Ghost of Future Perfect Progressive Passive might announce itself by saying “Ebenezer! When I come again, you will have been being disappointed for quite some time by all the wrong choices you have made in your life.”

Indeed, as several people noted in commenting on "What's will?", phrases like "you will have been being disappointed" are present in English only in a somewhat ethereal form. Checking the first 10 pages of Google hits for "will have been being", I found only grammatical examples and (grammatical) jokes. A search in Literature Online finds no hits at all, suggesting that the four-word sequence "will have been being" has never been used in the 350,000 works of English-language poetry and prose indexed there. And similarly, a search in the Proquest Historical Newspaper archive comes up empty.

That's not to say that this four-word auxiliary sequence has never been used in earnest, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that most English speakers have never encountered an example. If so, that means that the grammaticality of these phrases (and I'm personally convinced that they're in some sense part of the language) is implicit in the patterns that people do often encounter.

[In order to encourage the empirical impulse among our readers, the first person who finds and documents a genuine, real-world use of "will have been being" will receive a free lifetime subscription to Language Log. ]

[And again, just to keep things straight — "will have been disappointed", as used in this cartoon, certainly expresses a prediction about future time (a semantic notion), but that doesn't mean that it's in the future tense (a morpho-syntactic notion).]


  1. Robert S. Porter said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:39 pm


    Jones also warns that some kiosks overseas run pirated software, and therefore, no security updates will have been being applied. These kiosks are in a vulnerable state, he says."

    [(myl) Wonderful! We have a winner!
    …though in fairness, moolymolly posted an "in the wild" example in the "What's will?" thread at 12:38, a full minute earlier. So both win a free lifetime subscription! ]

  2. KYL said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    This is really neat. Can someone explain to me the difference between "no security updates will have been being applied" and "no security updates will have been applied"? I'm not sure I completely understand what the former is saying.

  3. marie-lucie said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    I think the earlier sentence implies an ongoing process rather than a single past event.

  4. Irene said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    Although installation of a security software update is a one-time thing, the updated security software runs (or is applied) continuously. It is applied to every transaction attempted at a kiosk.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    But the updates might not be catching up with the pirates fast enough.

  6. Ian Preston said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    From a school newsletter: "Sorry, but school dinners will have to be charged for if a child goes home after 10am unwell, as they will have been being prepared."

    I know I'm too late for the free subscription but can I have one half price?

  7. Sean Anderson said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    Just found an example on Google! Obviously, you haven't looked hard enough. Sixth page: 'Love Intense' by Robert M. Wilson.

    '… making love with Sweet Sari who will have been being made love to by Handsome Harry.'

    I'm not keen on this poem, mind.

  8. Sean Anderson said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    Another one. A blog.

    'Oh, and with any luck, I will have been being back to blogging at a more usual rate this week.'

  9. Sean Anderson said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

    'The only possible risk would be if some third party put up finance at the time of build and has not been repayed but that should become apparent as they will have been being paid some sort of interest.'

    'The experiences you have there might lead you into another area altogether and the only prerequisite you will need for law enforcement or firefighting will have been being a Marine.'

    'If you purchase a female over 6 months old and she has been kept with a male it is possible but it is equally possible that she will have been being kept in low temps which prevents breeding.'

    'If there is ligamental involvement, as the effect of the steroids wears off the lameness will return because the ligaments will have been being unknowingly put under pressure due to the masking effects of the medication.'

    'Scintillator modules will have been being tested for 2-3
    months, large supply ready'

    There are a lot of examples out there, but I'd personally never really put this construction into a piece of writing.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    Let's not neglect to mention Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Travellers' Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations, cited in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

    "It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother. … Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up: and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs. "

    [apologies if you already saw this on a previous posting.]

  11. Tim said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 2:36 am

    Sean : I think your second and fourth examples are simply future perfect progressive, not passive. They are just "will have been being" some predicate nominative/adjective, rather than "will have been being" some verb's past participle.

    Or am I mistaken? (I'm not a linguist, in any sense.)

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    I was discussing this on an EFL teacher's forum last week because somebody had found a web site that listed all the continous passive forms. There is precisely one occurrence of 'been being + past participle' in the whole of the British National Corpus, and it comes from the minutes of a hilariously inarticulate speech by a local authority politician.

    The COCA turned up twelve examples, but I didn't go through them checking for false flags where 'being + pp' is a noun phrase.

    It seems to me there is a constraint on the number of constituent parts a verb phrase can have, and the phantom forms would exceed it, but would welcome other ideas.

    One thing's clear; when you come across an example in the wild, Hell will have been being frozen over for a long time.

  13. Tim Silverman said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 10:28 am

    @Tim: Sean's second example does indeed just involve the verb "be" as the main verb, but the fourth example has the passive of "put" ("will have been being … put").

    However, Sean Anderson's example "will have been being back to blogging" is also not a passive.

  14. James Wimberley said,

    December 12, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    On Sean's Marine example:
    "…the only prerequisite you will need for law enforcement or firefighting will have been being a Marine."
    Since the prerequisite will be ongoing and not receding into the past, I think this would be better (? have better been put) as
    "…the only prerequisite you will need for law enforcement or firefighting will be having been a Marine."

  15. Merri said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 8:04 am

    I donn't see anything wrong with such forms ; they just say an long-during event takes place before some other future event, and is undergone by the subject.

    and please notice that the event can be present, past or future.

    Future perfect progressive passive will be quite uncommon, because progressive passive are. But it doesn't mean incorrect. A bit heavy to digest, perhaps, but correct.

  16. Vardibidian said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 5:20 pm


    I apologize for having been being delayed in my response, but I wasn't back to having been being blogging this week. However, had I been responding at the time that you were being a commenter, I would have been drawing attention to the fact that the post you quoted from was a snarky note about time travel. The concluding paragraph in full reads:

    And all for a minor contretemps which could have been being so easily being haven been will avoid being, simply by checking the calendar first, or earlier. Oh, and with any luck, I will have been being back to blogging at a more usual rate this week.

    I think this counts in Mr. Liberman's category of grammatical jokes, it is certainly what I had been intending to have been doing.


RSS feed for comments on this post