Correspondent Christophe Strobbe alerts me to this post by Neal Whitman of Literal-Minded, about constructions like “others were attempted to be killed” with “its passive marking on both the matrix verb (was attempted) and the embedded infinitive (to be killed)—something that makes less sense the more you try to parse it like any other passive, but which sounds pretty natural if you just go with it.” He quotes a bunch of examples he’s found online (“I am attempted to be hacked,” “payment must be received before the item is begun to be made,” “If any terms or conditions are failed to be followed,” and so on) and says “I’ve gotten so used to reading double passives by now that the above examples all sound pretty good to me.” In a follow-up post he quotes the American Heritage Book of English Usage:
You may sometimes find it desirable 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. These sentences are perfectly acceptable. But it’s easy for things to go wrong in these double passive constructions…. [D]ouble 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. How can you tell an acceptable double passive from an unacceptable one? If you can change the first verb into an active one, making the original subject its object, while keeping the passive infinitive, the original sentence is acceptable. Thus you can say The city has scheduled the building to be demolished next week and The composer originally intended the piece to be played on the harpsichord. But you cannot make similar changes in the other sentence. You cannot say The Central Bank attempted the fall in the value of the Yen to be stopped.
He has a draft paper (pdf) on the subject; I haven’t had time to read it, but the conclusion begins: “Though scarcely analyzed in the linguistics literature, the English double passive double passive is well attested, has existed since at least the late 1700s, and is the most succinct option for allowing the patient of an embedded infinitive to be used as the main subject in a sentence.” This is interesting stuff, and I’m surprised Language Log hasn’t discussed it (unless I’ve missed it).
Christophe adds: “I found examples in French, but not (yet) in German, and only one in my native language, Dutch. I wonder if you are familiar with this construction. I’m sure you and your readers could find examples in other languages where it exists.” Any takers?