First published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 46, September 2006
with additional subtitle “Peter Viney rescues a rare tense”.
There was a legendary German student I taught many years ago. In every lesson he asked for ‘harder grammar, please’ and he finally came into his own ticking off the march through conditionals. The numbering system was especially pleasing to him, which added to his disappointment when the numbers ran out at three. All the stuff on mixed conditionals was dismissed as irrelevant. What he really wanted, he confided, was the 4th Conditional. He felt that it was a Masonic secret open only to true devotees of English grammar, and that we were keeping this arcane knowledge to ourselves. For the next year our staffroom had a sheet of paper pinned up with the heading ‘In Search of the 4th Conditional …’ to which teachers added their increasingly convoluted, hilarious and filthy ideas.
So on the early morning of 13th April 2006 I was drowsily listening to BBC Radio Four. There was a news item on water shortages in London. Richard Aylard of Thames Water was being interrogated by John Humphries. It was pointed out that 30% of water in the city was lost within the leaking and antiquated system of pipes. Humphries gave the example of a leak that had continued next to his house for three weeks in spite of repeated calls to Thames Water asking them to fix it. Aylard broke in, ‘But during that time, leaks will have been being fixed elsewhere …’
Phew. I had to think about that one. That must be … what shall we call it? The Future Perfect Progressive Passive, or maybe the Modal Perfect Progressive Passive, something that no grammar book mentions, and which is left as a blank marked ‘no form’ in active / passive tables. It will have been being done …
My first thought was that it was a stumble, a momentary speech error into a non-existent form. Then I realized that it was impossible to replace with anything else that expressed quite the idea. will have been fixed … suggests completion, and the speaker wanted to stress the ongoing (progressive) nature of the activity, so he said will have been being fixed … I would argue for replacing it with the active We will have been fixing leaks elsewhere, but no corporate representative wants to take such direct personal responsibility. The passive would have soothed his soul, as well as the souls of his legal department (in the hypothetical event of a legal department having souls).
The thing is, we can all understand it because it’s an assembly of known blocks. It’s a piece of structure in theory in that we know the bits we need to assemble to create it, but the need to use it is incredibly rare. If we tabulate the possible active and passive versions of particular structures there is a gap in the table, and we can see that this is what would fill it.
See the table below, with the shakier ones in italic.
|future simple||We will fix it.||It will be fixed.|
|future progressive||We will be fixing it …||It will be being fixed|
|future perfect||We will have fixed it.||It will have been fixed.|
|future perfect progressive||We will have been fixing it …||It will have been being fixed.|
If we look at the italic examples above, they are so rare as not to be worth mentioning to students. If even the present progressive occurs only once in four million words, how often do these occur? Practical English Usage 3rd Edition says ‘Here is a list of all the passive forms of an ordinary English verb’ and omits both italicized ones. Eastwood’s Oxford Guide to English Grammar omits them too. I can’t find them in English Grammar in Use Intermediate, which draws the line after is being done and was being done. Even going back to something as exhaustive and exhausting in its treatment of the passive as W.S. Allen’s Living English Structure fails to throw up a passive example, though he mentions that The Future Perfect Continuous tense is very seldom heard. It’s beyond the scope of the definitive textbook authors’ resource on structures, English Grammatical Structure by that ELT supergroup of L.G. Alexander, W. Stannard Allen, R.A. Close and Robert O’Neill.
The only grammars I can find that admit to the possibility are L.G. Alexander’s Longman English Grammar and Sylvia Chalker’s Current English Grammar. Alexander says Modals with progressive passive sometimes occur and gives the example He may be being interviewed at this very moment, which covers our will be being fixed example in the table. Chalker gives a full table on Complex Tenses of Modals and includes the passive progressive (will / may / must etc) be being written and the passive perfect progressive (will / may / must) have been being written. Both are marked rare. She gives no examples of them in use.
Academic grammars whizz through the tense-related materials that form the backbone of the learners’ grammars, assessing rightly that anyone who lacked competence at the level of tenses wouldn’t be able to understand a word of them. They would also argue over the words future, perfect and progressive in my crude name for the structure. The most accesible, The Longman Grammar of Spoken & Written English notes that the present perfect and past perfect passive are the most frequent of the complex forms and all others are rare. The hardest grammar book of all, The Cambridge Grammar of The English Language is written in jargon-laden English with numbers and subscript numbers in parentheses dotted through every paragraph. It’s the book that supposedly tells us the most about the English language. It’s a pity the authors couldn’t write in it more transparently. Take this gem:
The basic use of the preterite is to locate Tr, as anterior to T0, where T0 is identified as Td.
The felicity of a long passive requires that the subject not represent information that is newer in discourse than the NP governed by the word by in the internalised complement.
And I paid a hundred quid for it. Whatever, it seems that listing the possible passive forms is far, far below the needs of their readership.
Native speakers are naturally affronted by be being and been being as confusing, hard to say and inelegant. They’re also disturbed by the thought of so many auxiliaries in a row. Oddly enough, I have seen the italic examples in grammar tables written by non-native speakers (pursuing their own 4th conditionals perhaps), while they tend to be blank in tables prepared by native speakers. However, they manifestly are possible constructions. It would have taken me a long time to situationalize the future perfect progressive passive, but the Thames Water scenario works.
I began to wonder if I’d been wrong for years in dismissing them out of hand as ‘no form’ or ‘you needn’t bother’. Maybe the exercise of working out the possibilities has some value, just as working out the decimal places after pi, or seeking a non-existent rule for prime numbers are said to be useful to mathematicians. Sylvia Chalker’s chart in Current English Grammar does fix the holes and tie up the loose ends in a way that many learners would find satisfying. My German student of so many years ago would have adored the future perfect progressive passive. I fear it would have led him to postulate an infinite number of ‘new structures’ stretching out beyond the limited list we had given him. Still, during that time, his mind would have been being exercised by the … oh, no! That’s another one. Where do you stop? It had been being done? They have been being done? Perhaps it’s time for another staffroom list.
L.G. Alexander, W. Stannard Allen, R.A. Close, Robert O’Neill: English Grammatical Structure (Longman, 1975)
L.G. Alexander, The Longman English Grammar (Longman, 1988)
W.S. Allen: Living English Structure (Longmans, 1947)
Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, Finegan: The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Longman, 1999)
Sylvia Chalker: Current English Grammar (Macmillan, 1984)
John Eastwood, Oxford Guide to English Grammar, (OUP, 1995)
Rodney Huddleston & Geoffrey K. Pullman: The Cambridge Grammar of The English Language (CUP, 2002)
Raymond Murphy, English Grammar In Use Intermediate (CUP)
Michael Swan, Practical English Usage 3rd Edition, (OUP, 2005)