"And the passive form of this one is...?" I asked.

"Would have ..." the student began. He paused, so I began to type what he had said. He watched as the words appeared on the projector screen. He continued: "...been ...being seen?" He was frowning. That couldn't be right. Four auxiliary verbs, would, have, been, and being, piled up before the main verb seen?

"Yes, that's right!" I said.

I've been teaching a class on academic writing for speakers of English as a foreign language. A big part of the curriculum involves them learning to imitate the rhetoric and grammar of academic papers in their fields of study. That involves learning when academic papers tend to use present, present perfect, or past tense, and (especially in some disciplines) getting comfortable with using the passive voice. With that in mind, I did a verb tense overview one day, laying out and reviewing the names for eight tenses in the active voice:

Present: sees
Present perfect: has seen
Present progressive: is seeing
Present perfect progressive: has been seeing
Past: saw
Past perfect: had seen
Past progressive: was seeing
Past perfect progressive: had been seeing

Now it was the following week, and time to get the lay of the land for passive voice. The students easily turned sees into is seen and saw into was seen. Has seen into has been seen and had seen into had been seen. They even converted is seeing to is being seen and was seeing into was being seen without too much hesitation. Where things began to get ugly was when we hit the perfect progressive tenses: has been being seen, and had been being seen. It was those been beings that threw them off. But I assured them that they had gotten the grammar right.

Then I moved to those same eight tenses with the modal verb will. (These are called the future tenses in traditional English grammars, but if you want to read about the argument that English has no future tense, see my column on mood, tense, and voice.) First the simple present and past: will be seen, would be seen. Then the present and past perfects: will have been seen, would have been seen. Next the present and past progressives: will be being seen, would be being seen. Those be beings didn't go over much better than the been beings, but again I said it was OK. Finally, we hit the present and past perfect progressives with will, which brought us to the forbidding five-verb complexes like will have been being seen and would have been being seen.

"Do people really say that?" one student asked me.

"Not so often, but it does happen," I said. "Let's find out!" I pulled up the trusty Corpus of Contemporary American English, the corpus I've referred them to when they write sentences like "This section will discuss about the advantages," or when they want to know whether to write "the explanation of" or "the explanation for". (I also use it for just about every column I write in this space.) I typed the search string "[have] been being [v?n*]" to bring up any and all instances of a form of have followed by been being and a past participle, and got 14 hits.

Then I modified the search to look for any modal verb plus have been being and a past participle. I was expecting that search to come back with zero results, but was pleasantly surprised to get four. Interesting sentences they were, too, like this one:

[W]hoever was responsible for this directly might have been being used by some other group.

Or this one, from the Fantasy/SciFi section of the Fiction part of the corpus:

He might have been being skinned alive, or having his soul torn out of his body.

And the loveliest one of all, which I quote in its fuller context, wherein CNN reporter Miles O'Brien comments on the failed landing of NASA's Genesis capsule in 2004. O'Brien lists a sequence of three events that should have happened but did not, with a triplet of past perfect modal verbs that concludes with a naturally occurring past perfect progressive passive:

All right, that was the visual, as they say, as the Genesis capsule returned to earth not in the way scientists had hoped, by any stretch. Parachutes should have opened, helicopters should have snagged that parachute, and by now, some very precious samples of the solar wind — and, hence, the origins of our solar system — should have been being handled with tender loving care and on their way to a clean room in Houston. Instead, there's an accident investigation under way in the Utah desert, as NASA tries to figure out why those parachutes didn't open, and why the scientific mission of Genesis ... appears to be lost.

Another fun example of overgrown progressive passives appears in this episode of Dinosaur Comics (which I found via Language Log). Here, the T-Rex pushes passive progressives a little bit further by calling on the "going to" future construction, and lets loose with shall be going to have been being done.

Driving home after class, I thought about how putting together a phrase like would have been being seen seemed so natural to me, and yet so twisted and wrong to my EFL students. To me, with the benefit of having grown up speaking English, it's like putting together a string of pieces to form the edge of a jigsaw puzzle.

The first piece: the verb would. The next piece has to be the plain form of a verb. It could be an ordinary verb, but it could also be an auxiliary verb — like have. What kind of piece will fit next to would have? It has to be the past participle of a verb. We could end the string right now by choosing the past participle of an ordinary verb, such as seen, but instead, we're using another auxiliary verb: been. Now we're looking for the fourth piece to attach to would have been. We could choose a corner piece, and finish off the verb phrase by choosing any of the kinds of phrases that can come after a form of be: a noun phrase (a great party), an adjective phrase (totally awesome), a past participle of some verb, like seen. Or we could keep things going by choosing the present participle of the same auxiliary verb we just had: being. Now that we've assembled would have been being, our options for stringing verbs together are limited to past participles of non-auxiliary verbs, such as seen. And there we have it: would have been being seen.

But taking the point of view of a student of English, or a linguist, I began to consider all the wrong turns you could take in trying to snap auxiliary verbs together like Legos.

  • If would can go with the plain form of the auxiliary verbs have or be, why not with the auxiliary verb do, to give us I would do see?
  • If be goes so well with present participles, including even its own present participle, why can't it go with the present participle of have, and allow clusters like is having seen?
  • In fact, why can't we get any number of auxiliary verb combinations, like would have had seen, would have been done see, would have been been being seen, or would have been being having been seen?

All these forms are so patently ungrammatical, while would have been being seen is so intuitively grammatical (albeit awkward). Clearly, the rules for what is and is not allowed are more complicated than just stating which auxiliary verbs go with present participles, past participles, or plain verb forms.

Furthermore, these rules have changed in the not-too-distant past. As it turns out, my students' Sprachgefühl for English auxiliaries isn't too bad; it's in line with the grammar intuitions of many native English speakers — of the 17th century. The only difference is that whereas my students objected only to the strings involving be being and been being, the grammarians of the 19th century didn't like any passive progressives at all. It was only in the 1700s that progressive passives began to claim their place in the English tense and voice system, and the development didn't go unnoticed. Many grammar books of the 1800s made extensive arguments for why these progressive passives didn't make sense. (You can read about several of them in this Language Log post.)

One common argument was that a sentence like The house is being built (the customary verb to use in these essays was build) actually meant the same thing as The house is built, in the same kind of way that The house is being white means the same thing as The house is white. And just as The house is being white is semantically anomalous, implying that at any moment the house could decide to turn a different color, so is The house is being built. Of course, as speakers of these sentences clearly had different meanings in mind for The house is built and The house is being built, this argument was nothing but a form of denial.

Another argument was that a much more natural and pleasant-sounding way of expressing the desired meaning already existed: The house is building. Or a-building. Or on building. It wasn't entirely clear, and there was variation in this "passival" use. In any case, they argued, this passive-like meaning for building was precedented in sentences like She doesn't scare easily or Your receipt is printing.This is actually not a bad argument. Even so, these so-called "mediopassives" are different from passivals in ways that 19th-century grammarians didn't notice. For example, they usually refer to general properties of their subjects (as in the soup that eats like a meal), not particular events (as in The house is building, or The orders are carrying out).

There was also a reductio ad absurdum argument regarding what would happen if we carried verbal forms like is being done to their logical extreme. As Goold Brown wrote in his Grammar of English Grammars in 1851:

As to the notion of introducing a new and more complex passive form of conjugation, as, "The bridge is being built," "The bridge was being built," and so forth, it is one of the most absurd and monstrous innovations ever thought of. Yet some two or three men, who seem to delight in huge absurdities, declare that this "modern innovation is likely to supersede" the simpler mode of expression. Thus, in stead of, "The work is now publishing," they choose to say, "The work is now being published." ... This is certainly no better English than, "The work was being published, has been being published, had been being published, shall or will be being published, shall or will have been being published;" and so on, through all the moods and tenses. What a language shall we have when our verbs are thus conjugated!

And now that our verbs are thus conjugated, what a language we do have!

If you'd like to hear more about how the progressive passive emerged in English, check out the latest installment of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley: "When Being Done Replaced Doing."

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.