I was reading Gina Kolata’s piece “Mysterious Maladies” in today’s NY Times when I was stopped by this quote:

People are “squished into categories that don’t really fit or they are given a medicine and said to take it — if you feel better you have the disease,” [Dr. Aronowitz] said.

To me, “said to take it” can mean only one thing: it is said that they take it. But the intended meaning is clearly “told to take it.” My guess is that this is an error, either on Aronowitz’s part (a slip of the tongue) or introduced by Kolata or an editor in unknown circumstances, but I know better by now than to assume my judgment of English usage matches with those of less grizzled users of the language, so I put it to you, Varied Reader: can you interpret “said to take it” in the intended way, or is it clearly an error?
Update. Just heard back from Ms. Kolata; she says it’s an exact quote from Dr. Aronowitz.


  1. I can interpret it in the intended way, not a problem at all. 22 year old male, CT, US raised, lived in the UK for five years.

  2. I agree with LH’s syntactic discomfort. (19-year-old male from Maryland, raised bilingual Russian-English.)

  3. I agree with LH: this is not grammatical according to my internal grammar.
    The NYT seems to have cut its weekend copyediting staff recently: I’ve noticed several eyebrow-raising turns of phrase over the last year or so.

  4. PhoenixGirl says:

    The intended meaning is clear, but it is just as clearly an error to my ear. 25-yr-old female, lived half my life in Gulf Coast Texas, half in northern VA/metro DC.

  5. Love it—the thrill of witnessing raw linguistic evolution as it occurs.

  6. Sky Onosson says:

    39 years old, Canadian here. I got the intended meaning on the first reading, without even a moment’s hesitation. For some reason, I think the fact that it is in a conjoined clause helps, but I’ve no idea why. Still, my vote is for this being completely grammatical.

  7. Took two readings, and decided what it meant from the context– so it looks to me like an error. But I also had some semantic interference from thinking ‘Is anyone ever given a medicine and told not to take it?’

  8. This American living in Toronto thinks it’s wrong wrong wrong.
    According to Wikipedia Aronowitz grew up in Brooklyn. I don’t know if that’s a common construction in any of the five boroughs, though.

  9. My aunt (now early 90s, lived her whole life in the English midlands) once told me that people in her youth would say of a willful, stubborn person that “she won’t be said” — i.e. won’t heed advice, listen to argument, do as she’s told, etc.
    I guess that’s somewhat distant in meaning, time, and geography from the NYT example here, but it seems related at least.

  10. Love it—the thrill of witnessing raw linguistic evolution as it occurs.
    Yes, exactly. It’s clear even from the two comments accepting it (by Richard Littauer and Sky Onosson) that it’s a new thing, presumably on its way up, and I expect my grandchildren, should they ever run across this ancient post in future years, will wonder how people could have found anything wrong with it. I will try to stifle my inner curmudgeon.

  11. For those who accept it, does said take two objects for you? That’s what would permit this kind of passive for me. “The doctor gave them the medicine and said to take it” is perfectly fine, since it’s active.

  12. But would Gina Kolata agree with Richard Littauer and Sky Onosson?

  13. Justpassingby says:

    One possible editorial explanation is that “take it – if you…disease” is meant to be quoted with a comma following “said to”. Still not correct to my ear either, but I have been said to, “You don’t know syntax.”. 40, male, Appalachia.

  14. Justpassingby says:

    One possible editorial explanation is that “take it – if you…disease” is meant to be quoted with a comma following “said to”. Still not correct to my ear either, but I have been said to, “You don’t know syntax.”. 40, male, Appalachia.

  15. I would definitely understand it as “told to take it”, but would probably (if this was oral – can’t guarantee I pay attention to every word when reading, this example being different as it was pointed out) judge that the speaker was using ‘non-standard’ or dialectal English.
    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this in dialectal use, in informal contexts.
    It’s thus surprising that this is given as a /quote/, when we might expect more ‘prepared’ or tidied-up speech, but we don’t know the context in which this was uttered – was Dr Aronowitz speaking to the reporter in quite a casual way? Was the reporter adamant about keeping to his exact words? To me, this kind of thing contributes to a feeling of orality.
    – British English speaker, have moved around various areas of Britain.

  16. I agree with Passing By: the error here is not in ‘said to’ instead of ‘told to’, but in the absence of the comma or colon after said to and, possibly, quotation marks before ‘take it’ and after disease, then it would make perfect sense: “they are given a medicine and said to: ‘take it, if you feel better, you have the disease’,” [Dr. Aronowitz] said.
    Assuming it was an interview with Aronowitz, it looks more like a case of sloppy write-up of one’s notes. It may be raw linguistic evolution as it occurs, but more likely, to me, the result of cuts where copy-editors and proof-readers go first.
    (I am a native Russian speaker, but have continuosly lived with English or worked with English since 1957.)

  17. Nicole Wyatt says:

    42, Canadian (since age 7, born in UK). Not only does the intended reading seem perfectly grammatical to me, but it’s the first one that jumps to mind. I had to think about the Hat’s reading, which seems archaic to me.

  18. I got it, but it looks like an error to me too.
    This name-my-disease effect reminds me of something Lewis Thomas writes about: his books are out of reach and his publisher isn’t cooperating with Google, so I can’t quote it. But it’s about his father, a general practitioner, and how his fathers’ generation of medical students was explicitly taught that their job was to give a diagnosis, a prognosis, and to comfort the patient, and that was about it. The previous generation had been able to see that the old medical remedies just didn’t work (with about six exceptions, of which I recall aspirin/willow bark tea, syrup of ipecac, and smallpox vaccination), but without having any new ones to replace them with yet.

  19. . . .they are given a medicine and said to, “Take it — if you feel better you have the disease.”
    Still awkward in print, but punctuated like that, it looks like an accurate quote of spoken English.

  20. I disagree that this rewriting improves matters; the dangling “to” is merely brought into greater prominence and its ambiguity (is it a preposition or part of an infinitive?) highlighted. (I understood the statement but it sounded wrong to me; middle-aged, NYC, not a linguist.)

  21. The “told to take it” interpretation doesn’t bother me at all. I think I even use the verb “say” that way myself sometimes. I’m a non native speaker of English, though.

  22. michael farris says:

    Seems wrong to me (US native speaker on the wrong side of 50). It’s partly wrong grammatically (said doesn’t have that argument structure in my dialect) and partly wrong stylistically (potentially awkward and/or ambiguous).
    But now that I think of it, are there any verb/argument structures that are unambiguously wrong for most native speakers anymore? or has the sheer number of native (and non-native)varieties meant that we are in a post stylistic age where anything understandable semantically is okay?
    This is not just an idle question. As an (occasional editor) of international texts I’m wondering just what I can change anymore….

  23. (Male, American, 55) It strikes me as odd, but not problematic. Nor is it what threw me first, which is “squished into categories that don’t really fit…” Surely it is the people who do not fit, since they are the ones being squished.
    Neither of these are things I would class as “errors,” in that they don’t alter the meaning, but rather as indications that the speaker is not truly what I would call “well-spoken.” Contrary to some famous political claims not too long ago, “well-spoken” is not “the sort of thing you say about someone when you can’t think of anything nice to say.” It is, instead, one of the top half-dozen compliments I could pay, and few people qualify.
    Errors? No.

  24. can you interpret “said to take it” in the intended way, or is it clearly an error?
    I can interpret anything, given enough time and other resources. Fact is, though, I prefer not to take the time and expend the resources needed to understand ambiguous, sloppy speech and writing – nor to engage in judicious discussion as to whether it’s really sloppy or actually avant-garde.
    I would bypass the “is it an error or a feature ?” stage, to state the obvious: there is a simple, conventional way to express without ambiguity what the expression apparently means: “told to take it”. To make myself easy to understand when speaking or writing, I use statistically traditional ways of speaking and writing. I expect others to do the same towards me. When they don’t, I turn my attention elsewhere, or lay the book aside.
    The only general exceptions I make are for children and potential lays.

  25. phosphorious says:

    Read it and got the intended meaning without batting an eye.
    Really didn’t register as an error.
    40 year old male, from the NYC area.

  26. I did not interpret “said” as everyone else did.
    “They are said to take medicine.” That doesn’t mean “told”, but something more like “It is believed that they take medicine.
    So….they were given medicine, and we think they took it.
    Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was the only sense I could make of that sentence.

  27. Yeah, I agree with Grumbly. When everyone’s saying it, I’ll consider it. It’s not yet iconic.

  28. (Iconic was a joke, by the way.)

  29. Mistake. Typing up interview notes with a hangover. Not colloquial for any English speaker or writer I’ve ever encountered. (Oregonian, 52, pal of Brits, Canadians, Australians, Indians, and many other English speakers.) The writer changed her mind about whether to quote directly or indirectly, but didn’t finish cleaning up the change. This is one of my most typical errors, too.

  30. I think Crown means “ironic” – he got his “c”s and “r”s crossed.

  31. (Male, American, 55)
    Why are people stating their sex here, as if Hat were conducting a medical survey, or setting up a dating service ? Does sex often correlate with speech patterns in American English ? What about height, weight and hobbies ?

  32. Robert Mrtvola says:

    I can’t recall ever hearing this construction before, so it sounds like a mistake to me, a forty-seven-year-old American. To my ear, “they are said to take it” means “they are reputed to take it,” which makes no sense here. But, since some commenters apparently find this passive construction an acceptable equivalent for “they are told to take it,” I am curious to know whether the active construction, “someone said them to take it,” also sounds okay.

  33. @Michael Farris:
    It’s funny: your “anymore”s, especially the second, raise my syntactic eyebrow.

  34. it would make perfect sense: “they are given a medicine and said to: ‘take it, if you feel better, you have the disease’,” [Dr. Aronowitz] said.
    No, sorry, that doesn’t work.
    I had to think about the Hat’s reading, which seems archaic to me.
    I am now officially archaic.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    Sounds like error to me. Like Robert M., I think the question is can you reverse the passive construction into, e.g., “the doctor said them to take the medicine”? That’s not grammatical for me, although “the doctor told them to take the medicine” is obviously fine, as is its passive variant “they were told [by the doctor] to take it [i.e. the medicine].”
    Moreover, given that passive “to be said to” as a hedge meaning reportedly, reputedly, but hey don’t sue us if it’s not actually true seems particularly common in journalese, an innovative use that doesn’t mean that seems unusually likely to confuse the reader in a journalistic context.

  36. Male, 53, born and raised in SE England, lived in Indonesia for the past 20 years.
    “The doctor said to take it,” sounds fine to me as equivalent to “The doctor told them to take it”. For me, the passive “They are said to take it” would mean “There is a rumour/report that they took it.”

  37. (Portuguese native speaker, 20 year old male, English tuition since 12, plus surfing the internet and reading news and articles in english almost everyday)
    “…so I put it to you, Varied Reader: can you interpret ‘said to take it’ in the intended way, or is it clearly an error?”
    Both possibilities turn out to be true in my case. Yes, I could quickly interpret it in the intended way. Nonetheless the phrase sounds awkward and, most importantly, unintended. So I consider that to be a mistake. To me, even though the context helps the reader to deduce the correct meaning due to the repetitive use of the passive voice, the construction with “said” is quite uncommon. Actually, I haven’t seen somethng like that in my experience with english as far as I can remember. (but I realize that this is consequence of english being my second language)

  38. The construction seems wrong to me, exactly as Hat says (“people are told to X” means someone tells them to X, “people are said to X” means someone says that they X), but in this case, for some reason, I didn’t bat an eyelash. The usual sense of “people are said to X” didn’t even occur to me for some reason.
    And Sashura’s fix struck me as a perfect fix for a moment, until I realized that it still had the exact same problem (people are told to: [instruction], not said to: [instruction]). So for some reason this sentence, in whatever form, really makes me not notice this construction.
    (26-year-old, Cleveland, male, hobbies include tennis and programming.)

  39. “What should we do now, Jim?”
    “Well, the foreman said to go around back and unload everything.”
    Does that really look strange to anyone? I interpret the “said to go” as “said we should go” or “said I should go”. No one I know would bat an eye at a construction like this. 27, Chicago now, Boston raised.

  40. (That said, “people are said to” looks strange to me, unless we mean “they say that people do X.”)

  41. Małgorzata says:

    No one has accepted “The doctor said them to take it” yet. But what about “The doctor said to them to take it”? So, could “said to take it” be a contraction for “said to to take it”?

  42. Another possible interpretation, that springs to mind as a doctor, is “… given a medicine and said to have taken it”, differentiating between being given a medicine and actually taking it. This is a live issue with medicine being prescribed but not actually consumed. Or some approximate conflation of the two, the reporter not being quite sure which the doctor meant. Actually, even this interpretation is laboured. And the original definitely sounds wrong to me. 32 native speaker, Singaporean, in UK >10 years.

  43. I think strictly speaking it’s incorrect.
    But I would analyse it like this:
    “The doctor said to him to take it” (This is fine!)
    After undergoing passivisation:
    “He was said to take it” (Not the intended meaning!)
    So it’s just a poor application of the passivisation rule. Formally speaking it’s fine. For example, you could do it with ‘tell’ and there wouldn’t be a problem:
    “The doctor told him to take it”.
    “He was told to take it”.
    But not ‘say’. Or similar words like ‘whisper’ or ‘shout’:
    “The doctor whispered to him to take it” — “He was whispered to take it”. (Wrong)
    “The doctor shouted to him to take it” — “He was shouted to take it”. (Wrong)
    Whether this change in the application of the passivisation rule will spread, I have no idea. The meaning is certainly understandable, precisely because you can see how the form was derived, even if it’s the result of the faulty application of the rule.

  44. michael farris says:

    The problem with this for me is that in my dialect only prepositionless objects can be raised to the subject in the passive and ‘say’ doesn’t allow for dative raising.
    On the other hand, a few minutes with google indicates that in ‘international’ and some post colonial kinds of English ‘said’ does indeed allow dative raising. It seems very common in Indian usage.
    “he said me to” gets over 14 million hits most of which are not grammar corrections….

  45. I second bathrobe’s take on this.
    For those who would like to read a brief summary of the passive in English, Geoffrey K. Pullum over at Language Log recently posted one here. Don’t miss the earlier post here on the passival form which was being taken over by the passive as late as the second half of the 19th century.
    “Said to take it” is clearly unidiomatic for me in the sense of “told to take it”. At first I thought it must mean “presumed to take it”. But in the light of the constant flux of the English language (and the precedent of the passive supplanting the passival) I am not prepared to bet against “said to take it” being the wave of the future. BTW I am a 61 year old male from Melbourne, Australia.

  46. @bathrobe: “The doctor said to him to take it” sounds fine to you? I’d accept “The doctor said to him, ‘take it'” or “The doctor said to him that he should take it”, but “The doctor said to him to take it” sounds just as bad to me as “He was said to take it” (in this sense).
    That said, “he was said to take it” (in the usual sense) doesn’t have an active counterpart, anyway — I don’t think you can say, *”they said him to take it” (only “they said that he took it”) — so it makes sense that it could be an edge case, with different speakers having different intuitions about what’s O.K.

  47. No, sorry, for me “said” ≠ “told”. But I’m 58, so who knows. Not seen this construction before, although I do regularly come across the (to me intensely irritating) journalistic habit of writing “told of” meaning “spoken of”, eg A Henley entrepreneur and amateur jockey has told of his historic victory in one of jump racing’s biggest races. “Tell”, for me, has to take an object that is being told – you can’t use it intransitively.

  48. Just heard back from Ms. Kolata; she says it’s an exact quote from Dr. Aronowitz, so if it’s an error it’s his. But I suspect he’s just one of this newfangled crew of said-to-ists.

  49. As a physician, this makes perfect sense to me. It is a bit of jargon, I suppose. The construction “the patient is said to take X”, or “the patient is said to have taken X”, is very common. It means that we can presume that the medicine has been taken based on a patient’s reportage, and not from direct evidence such as a blood test.
    To say that you gave a patient a medication and then told them to take it, seems unnecessary and unidiomatic.

  50. As a physician, this makes perfect sense to me. It is a bit of jargon
    Yes, that says it all.

  51. Grumbly, I think the idea of Steve making a bit of extra money by setting up a dating service among his friends, admirers, and compañeros is a truly wonderful one. After all, who among us wouldn’t like to spend an evening in the company (to say no more) of a suitably chosen Hattic?
    This is perhaps not quite the moment to mention — or perhaps it is — that on the penultimate page of the report on the 2008 Dene-Yeniseian symposium[*], there is a wonderful picture of many of the participants, including Ed Vajda himself but more relevantly and in the front row our own Marie-Lucie. Although I bought the issue many moons ago, my eye (de)lighted on this photograph only the other day.
    Now while I could not justify to myself spending $40 for this photograph alone, and many of the statements in the various papers are best described Finnically as “interesting, but tough”, there is more than enough highly accessible content, especially the first part of Vajda’s first paper and the whole of his second, and the reviews by Eric Hamp and Johanna Nichols, to make the purchase more than worthwhile.
    [*] Ed. J. Kari and B. Potter. The Dene-Yeniseian Connection: Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, new series, vol. 5 (2010). Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Department of Anthropology. PDF order form.

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    I (British surgeon) second Simon: I don’t think the intended meaning was “told to”, but “alleged to”.
    Sort of thing we say all the time, knowing how devious and untrustworthy you patients are.
    FWIW the “told to” sense is completely ungrammatical for me.

  53. Interesting. I’ve become so alarmed at the state of the English language these days, probably due to the Internet, that I recently put together a blog, mostly to vent, but also as a resource for non-native speakers who might want to improve their English language skills. Everyone is invited to submit brief passages for review and, if necessary, correction — usually with an explanation of what went wrong.

  54. John Cowan: … there is a wonderful picture of many of the participants, including Ed Vajda himself but more relevantly and in the front row our own Marie-Lucie … $40 for this photograph alone …
    That’s a fair price, John, and I may buy one too. After all, marie-lucie’s opinions are much more valuable than Ezra Pound’s. As many will remember he once reported that his name, when transliterated into Japanese, meant “This picture of a phallus costs ten yen”.

  55. Victor Grauer: I’ve become so alarmed at the state of the English language these days, probably due to the Internet …
    That’s a clear case of sampling error, Victor. “The English language”, whatever that may be, is unlikely to have deteriorated or improved much over the last few measly decades. What you find in the Internet is what you would have found before the Internet, simply by going outdoors to engage the masses in conversation.
    All you have to do is turn off the Internet, like turning off the television, and the world becomes tolerable again. That’s yet another sampling error, of course, but a more reassuring one.

  56. I am not prepared to bet against “said to take it” being the wave of the future
    I am, though, because I haven’t built my house of language on beach sand. Instead, it rests on stubborn resistance to pointless changes.

  57. “stubborn resistance to pointless changes” too often becomes “pointless resistance to stubborn changes”

  58. michael farris says:

    Now my question is “Why didn’t she paraphrase this awkward bit of doctor jargon?” Back in my journalism days I don’t think I would have used such an opaque/confusing quote.
    Two other bits of doctorese I’ve heard of:
    The impersonal passive is used to describe actions the doctor did or did not do as in: Blood pressure was not measured.
    Involuntary states of the patient are described in voluntary active terms as in: the patient increased her blood pressure.
    (I got both of these from work by Suzette Haden Elgin)

  59. Now my question is “Why didn’t she paraphrase this awkward bit of doctor jargon?”
    In her response to me she said she probably should have done that. I said I was glad she didn’t, because then I wouldn’t have learned about this bit of syntactic innovation.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    The impersonal passive is used to describe actions the doctor did or did not do as in: Blood pressure was not measured.
    You mean the “agentless passive”: this is common when the “agent” who actually did the action is either unknown or irrelevant: in this case, blood pressure is often measured by a nurse rather than by a doctor – you don’t have to be a doctor to learn how to measure blood pressure, and the identity of the measurer is usually irrelevant. With “blood pressure was not measured by the doctor” we would expect “but by …” if the person was actually relevant. The active form “the doctor did not measure blood pressure” would only be used if there was an expectation that the doctor should have done so.
    (For a thorough though simple review of the passive, see Geoff Pullum’s summary on Language Log a few days ago).

  61. marie-lucie says:

    I did not know about that picture, but it is a bargain: I am told that for $40 you also get the picture of about ten other people (we are all on one photograph), and as a bonus, pages and pages on the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis, most of them written by the people in question (though not by me).

  62. Grumbly Stu: “What you find in the Internet is what you would have found before the Internet”
    I should have made myself more clear. The problem is that the Internet freely disseminates all sorts of errors, and non-native speakers surfing the ‘net can all too easily assume that such errors are examples of proper usage. It’s almost like a virus in that respect.

  63. It parsed fine for me on first read; I believe I have heard the construction before in speech. When you stop and think about it, I can see why others feel it’s incorrect, and I’d probably not use the construction in formal writing. But afinetherorum’s example sounds fine to me, too. 31, Boston native, 8 years in NYC. Possibly a New England thing?

  64. J. W. Brewer says:

    I had never heard the particular Pound quote contributed by Grumbly Stu, but google books shows it appears in Instigations (first published 1920, with its component essays possibly earlier). It’s perhaps worth noting that the yen was worth a lot more in those days (WW2 subsequently causing a devaluation of on the order of 99%, although it started bouncing back in the ’70’s). At least before ww1 disrupted the good old gold standard (don’t know whether equilibrium had been reestablished as of 1920), ten yen was worth a trifle less than US$5 but a trifle more than one British pound or 25 French francs. Of course I don’t know what the range of market prices for pictures of phalloi was in those days . . .

  65. Blood pressure was not measured.
    We were taught to write descriptions of experiments in physics & chemistry like this (“reported speech”, he called it), by my science teacher when I was 11. I bet that’s where it comes from.

  66. Jonathan D says:

    I said I was glad she didn’t [paraphrase the jargon], because then I wouldn’t have learned about this bit of syntactic innovation.
    Wait a minute, the commenters claiming that this is jargon are describing an innovation at all – they’re describing the one meaning you thought the phrase can have. I also thought that it might be the intended meaning after all, but it’s not clear.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    descriptions of experiments in physics and chemistry
    That’s because the experiment is not supposed to be dependent on who does it or what the experimenter feels about it, but on how it is done, so there is no place for “I-statements” or “a distinctive voice” in such reports, unlike writing exercises where students are encouraged to “express their feelings”. Scientific reports drive literary people crazy as they misunderstand the purpose of the plain, impersonal style in this context. No, the experimenter is not trying to hide, or to disclaim responsibility: the same procedure done in the same manner should give the same results when done by dozens of other similarly qualified people.
    When I was in school, I never got good marks in French as long as “feelings” were involved – my grammar and spelling were perfect but I did not want the teachers to know what I felt! Things changed when we started to discuss literary and intellectual matters, dealing with ideas and actual works, rather than our feelings.

  68. marie-lucie says:

    syntactic innovation
    Most of the commenters tried to interpret the unusual turn of phrase, which was largely unknown to them (and to me as well). Only the doctors who replied were familiar with it, and used it themselves, like the doctor first quoted. I would say this is indeed a sign of a syntactic innovation, currently apparently limited to medical jargon, but which could conceivably pass into general speech if enough non-medical people hear it (in TV shows, for instance) and start using it themselves.
    Many linguistic innovations start in a limited context (sports, politics, etc) and pass into general speech as the bulk of the population becomes familiar with them. On the other hand, speech fashions in such areas come and go too, so generalizing is not inevitable. But linguistic evolution is unpredictable, and it is impossible to say what will or will not happen.

  69. Is this turn of phrase really that unusual?
    Would anyone blink at the following dialogues?:
    A: “You know how Jimmy is, right?”
    B: “Yes. He is said to be a genius. I don’t see it, though.”
    A: “That particular South American tribe seems to contradict Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar. After all, they are said to have no words for number or color, and no tense or aspect.”
    These are natural sentences for me. In both, you get the sense that the speaker is trying to put a little distance between themselves and the claim that follows “said” by attributing it to some invisible 3rd party. This kind of circumlocution is rampant in medicine, but I think it can be found in everyday speech as well.

  70. Is this turn of phrase really that unusual?
    No, of course not, with the meaning you give, the one I mentioned in the post (“To me, ‘said to take it’ can mean only one thing: it is said that they take it”). I do not think it means that here, and I do not think Ms. Kolata thinks it means that here. I do not think that reading makes sense in context. And since it is clear from some of the comments here that there is a group of speakers who use “said to” to mean “told to,” it seems to me clear that that is what it is intended to mean here.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    I get the impression that for the doctors here, “they (the patients) are said to take it” does not mean “they (as a group) are reputed to take it” or “they are told to take it” (of course they are told so by the doctors – why else would they be given the prescription) but “they (as individuals) said they took it” – meaning that the patients said that they took the medication prescribed, and the doctors have to accept the patients’ reports at face value but cannot be sure that they all did take it. This is indeed a distinct meaning for this otherwise fairly common expression.

  72. I see.
    May I suggest that it comes down to how the phrase was uttered?
    * (with pause, then emphasis) “said to… TAKE it” = told
    * (with little inflection) “said-to-take-it” = reported event
    I would totally buy the “told to” meaning if it was uttered the right way.

  73. Yes. He is said to be a genius.
    they are said to have no words for number or color, and no tense or aspect
    These can both be paraphrased using “it is said that”:
    Yes. It is said that he is a genius.
    it is said that they have no words for number or color, and no tense or aspect
    This is, in fact, the test for this construction.
    The question is whether squished into categories that don’t really fit or they are given a medicine and said to take it can be paraphrased in this way?
    squished into categories that don’t really fit or they are given a medicine and it is said that they take it
    Some people have said that this is how they interpret it, but in the context it doesn’t really work very well. Given the occurrence of people are squished into categories just previously, said to take it would seem to have the same passive implication, i.e., someone squishes them into categories and says to them to take medicine. “It is said that they take the medicine” is just strange in this context.

  74. Marie-Lucie, I would choose “they (as a group) are reputed to take it”. I agree with you that “they (as individuals) said they took it” seems a bit awkward. I hadn’t even thought of that distinction.
    Patient information can come from so many different sources (patient direct report, most commonly; family member report; questionnaire; visiting nurse pill-counting; etc.) that there is a tendency to avoid specificity in how the knowledge was obtained. Especially since all these sources of repute are not entirely reliable.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    Simon, I based my interpretation on comments by yourself and “cavorting”, who both identified yourselves as doctors.

  76. Robert Mrtvola says:

    While I agree with Bathrobe that the phrase “are said to” sounds odd here, frankly the whole sentence seems very awkward, and people are often inarticulate in interviews. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we accept the reports of the physician-commenters, who have averred that something like “allegedly” or “it is said” (rather than “are told to”) is probably what Dr. Aronowitz meant? Said by whom? By the patients themselves (or their families, caregivers, whomever). The doctors can’t vouch for these people’s veracity, so they cover themselves with a passive construction. (Marie-Lucie’s distinction between the patients as individuals or as a group, while interesting, doesn’t seem necessary to me.)
    My interpretation of the whole clumsy sentence is roughly this: “Doctors have to force people’s illnesses into existing but not always appropriate categories. They prescribe medicines to their patients (medicines those patients may or may not actually take), and if the patients get better, the doctors tell them it means they must have had whatever illness the medicine is designed to cure.”
    Aronowitz may have included the phrase “are said to” without thinking, out of the mere habitual caution of a medical man who knows better than to trust what his patients tell him, but the fact that the doctors don’t even know if their patients took the medicines that “cured” them underscores the dubiousness of the resulting diagnoses, which is surely the larger point.

  77. marie-lucie says:

    the patients as individuals or as a group
    I meant that in one example (such-and-such a tribe is said to have no words, etc) “to be said to” is a general comment by people who have heard a report about a group but are not familiar with the actual people involved in the situation, while in the words of a specific doctor dealing with actual patients, the doctor is speaking from experience with those individual patients, not just repeating some general statement uttered by someone else unfamiliar with the actual circumstances of doctor-patient communication.

  78. Robert Mrtvola says:

    I understand, Marie-Lucie, but I’m not sure that it makes much difference here. Yes, the doctor is familiar with his individual patients, but he doesn’t know for certain whether they’re telling him the truth about taking their medicine, any more than the anthropologist knows whether her source is well-informed about the far-away tribe. In both cases, they resort to the “are said to” construction to avoid endorsing something that might turn out to be false.

  79. I guess someone should write to Dr. Aronowitz and ask what he meant.

  80. marie-lucie says:

    I second that!
    RM, I do see an important difference between the two situations. In one case, the (group members) are said by anthropologists, journalists, etc (all outsiders relaying the information) to do XYZ, in the second case the patients “are said” (as told directly by them to their doctors) to have taken the medicine. The first case is extremely common, but if it was the meaning intended in the quotation, that was certainly not obvious to the commenters here, except perhaps to the doctors.

  81. Robert Mrtvola says:

    M-L: It wasn’t obvious to me, either, but that was more because of the clumsy way Aronowitz expressed himself than because of the novelty of the idiom. If he had said, “The patients are given a medicine, and they are said to have taken it,” I don’t think the possible “are told to” meaning would have occurred to any of us. We might still have thought “are said to” was a slightly odd way for him to have put it, for precisely the reason you’ve identified, but we would have understood what he meant immediately.
    Also, as another commenter has noted, one reason this construction may be favored by doctors (if indeed it is) would be that it does NOT specify who is doing the saying and thus covers more contingencies than just direct communication by the patients. In some cases it could be the patients’ nurses or family members who are telling the doctors that the patients have taken the medicine. You could argue that those people also have direct knowledge, but so does an anthropologist who has visited the tribe in the jungle.
    I agree with you, however, that in practice the “is/are said to” construction is not commonly used for what people say about themselves, so the use we’re discussing (if Aronowitz did intend it so) does appear to represent something of an expansion in its application.

  82. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the clarification, RM.

  83. J. W. Brewer says:

    My intuition is perhaps even stronger than RM’s that outside this new-to-me medical-jargon context (where it makes practical sense), the “is said to be/do X” construction means “is said to be/do X by someone other than him/herself.” If the person had said it himself I would think (if you wanted to signal you were reserving judgment on accuracy) you would instead say something like “he says he is/does X” or “he claims to be/do X.”

  84. Sounded normal on first take (NZer, 39) but on reflection it doesn’t seem right – I suspect it is one of those things which are accepted in the spoken language but don’t usually appear in the written.

  85. As a failed 11+,I doth write , it was said that I be a snotty nose kid, but a I was not, I always blew my nose.

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