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A recent commenter on a recent word-search question nominated a term as “an even better word for what is trying to be said.” This seems to me to attribute intention to something—a meaning—that is incapable of intention. I have also encountered this same fallacy, as it seems to me, with words such as able and ability followed by passive infinitive, in such a way as seemingly and absurdly to locate the ability in question in the patient rather than the agent. For some reason, passive constructions like “capacity to be [past participle],” and “capability of being [past participle],” which respectively locate the capacity and the capability in the patient, do not likewise bother me in the least:

The 235U nucleus has the unique capacity to be split by a neutron into 89Kr, 144Ba, and three neutrons that can in turn split further 235U nuclei.

But I would never say or write that the nucleus is able or has the ability to be split.

To say that something “can be said” is unquestionably grammatical, and some instances of “able to be said” result from trying to put that into the future tense or conditional mood, as “will/would/could/should be able to be said.” To say that something is sayable is also unexceptionable: adjectives in -able or -ible normally tend to modify or be predicated of the patient.

A Google Books ngram of “able to be said,” “trying to be said,” and “try to be said” shows very low but non-zero frequencies for the former two. A plain-vanilla Google search for “able to be said” turns up (besides a few instances where a comma and right-hand quotation mark separate be from said) a surprisingly high proportion of results from Google books, and a surprisingly high proportion of results that are products of translation from other languages. (Also and less unexpectedly I found among the top results one that resulted from a transformation of “can be said” as discussed above.) Searching for “passive infinitive” in combination with “able” or “try” led me to some on-line grammatical resources, but the only one to discuss this particular problem was a page I had written for my students a few months back.

  • Do you perceive any difference between "is able to X" and "is able to be Xed"? – Jim Jul 8 '14 at 21:16
  • @Jim: Of course. It is the latter that I think almost always problematic in locating ability in the patient rather than in the agent (or to put that another way, in the done-to-rather than the doer). – Brian Donovan Jul 8 '14 at 22:59
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    I guess that's where we differ in interpretation. In my mind "to be Xed" locates the ability with the doer not with X. The to be turns the action X done by the doer, to a state that can be assigned to X. If a package is ready to be picked up, the doer is me (the picker upper) not the package. Saying that the package is able to be picked up says that the package is in a state such that pickup by someone is possible. Likewise saying the package is unable to be picked up means there is something outside of the doer's control that would prevent him from picking it up. – Jim Jul 8 '14 at 23:13
  • @Jim +1 and thanks for the splendid example of the package ready to be picked up. (I was looking for such but drawing a blank.) But I see a big difference between attributing readiness to such an inanimate thing and attributing ability to it, and yes, I read able to be picked up as attributing ability to the package. – Brian Donovan Jul 8 '14 at 23:18
  • How do you feel about "There is a package waiting at the front desk"? – Neil W Jul 9 '14 at 0:51
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AHD has this to say about whether or not 'This is able to be said' is allowable:

Usage Note:

The construction able to takes an infinitive to show the subject's [referent's] ability to accomplish an action:

We were able to get a grant for the project.
The new submarine is able to dive twice as fast as the older model.

Some people think it should be avoided when the subject does not have an ability, as in sentences with passive constructions involving forms of the verb be:

The problem was able to be solved by using a new lab technique.

The reasoning here is that since the problem has no ability to accomplish an action, it is not able to do anything, and therefore able to should not be used.

Presumably this ban would apply to similar words like capable and to negative words like unable and incapable. In such cases one can usually avoid the problem by using can or could:

The problem could be solved....

Keep in mind, however, that passives with get ascribe a more active role to their subjects, and here one can use able to:

He was able to get accepted by a top law school.

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