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I was taught that we made passive voice using be + the participle of the main verb, without changing the verb tense. E.g.,

I send letters. (present simple)
Letters are sent. (present simple of 'Be' + participle)

I sent letters. (past simple)
Letters were sent. (past simple of 'Be' + participle)

I was sending letters. (past progressive)
Letters were being sent. (past progressive of 'Be' + participle)

I have sent letters. (present perfect)
Letters have been sent. (present perfect of 'Be' + participle)

Works beautifully, right? That is, until a student asks you "How about…"

I have been sending letters. (present perfect progressive)
Letters HAVE BEEN BEING SENT. (present perfect progressive of 'Be'?!)

I said that would be too weird to say (is it not‽ ) and it would be more appropriate to say Letters have been sent, to which the student retorted: But then you are changing the verb tense. It is no longer progressive.

Can anyone explain, please?

marked as duplicate by Marv Mills, ScotM, Mari-Lou A, Tushar Raj, Sven Yargs Jun 28 '15 at 8:01

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  • 3
    Ask the student what leads him/her to believe that all tenses must have a usable passive voice. – Matt Gutting May 7 '15 at 16:04
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    I see nothing wrong with "Letters have been being sent". "Letters must have been being sent for hours before the dam's failure was noticed." – Greg Lee May 7 '15 at 16:10
  • There's nothing to say against the grammaticality of the passive voice, but it is a bit of a mouthful to say, and people don't "say" it, although in its written form you'll probably get away with it. – Mari-Lou A May 7 '15 at 16:11
  • "They have been doing roadworks since Monday" vs. "Roadworks have been being done since Monday" Doesn't work IMO. Matt Gutting is more or less right. The present continuous in the passive voice is v. rare. – Mari-Lou A May 7 '15 at 16:20
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    The more auxiliary verbs you pile up in the verb chain (e.g, In a couple minutes, she will have been being photographed for five full hours), the more likely it is to sound weird. The progressive, the perfect, and the passive each add an auxiliary and change the next verb form, and so does the modal at the front. That's, as you say, quite a lot. Which is why it's not that common: (1) the contexts where it might occur are rare, and (2) the construction produced is a little wobbly, like a haik last line with 13 syllables. – John Lawler May 8 '15 at 13:59
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I haven't found any good references, but "been being" is definitely grammatical. It's just enormously awkward; and has been being so for decades.

Grammar is not my strong suit, so perhaps I'm wrong in seeing this as a "word-based" problem rather than a "sentence-based" problem. Looking at the phrase "Letters HAVE BEEN BEING SENT." I observe that send is both a dynamic verb and an irregular verb.

In practical terms we don't have a compound for "sent-being" so we simply use the compound "send-being". Our shortcut for "been being sent" is simply "Letters have been sending".

  • If absolutely nobody uses it, and people feel that it's incorrect when they hear it, why do you say it is grammatical? – Peter Shor May 8 '15 at 14:31
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    @PeterShor it's grammatical in the formulaic sense of "not contradicting rules of proscribed construction" as well as having discernible semantic/syntactic meaning. The other noteworthy point is that it is a very literalistic expansion of more common phrases that are themselves grammatical. I would theorize that "been being" is probably used more in grammar discussions than in daily life, and by quite a large margin; because it's explicit literalness aids in clarifying tenses and structures in other parts of a sentence. Random example: www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/bcg/lec04.html – H.R.Rambler May 8 '15 at 15:00
  • "Letters have been sending" is the way it would have been said up through the 19th century. The passive verbal construction was not generalized to the progressive aspect until the early 20th century. (And judging from some comments, perhaps it is now being lost.) – Greg Lee Jun 26 '15 at 8:28
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The present perfect progressive in passive voice is extremely rare. BNC has only two examples.

http://bnc.bl.uk/saraWeb.php?qy=has+been+being&mysubmit=Go

COCA has 8 incidents.

http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/ Search for "has been being". The link does not work as I thought.

  • It is probably quite rare in its written form due to the fact that any writer worth his salt would ruthlessly strip out the passive voice. – Jascol Jun 26 '15 at 8:40
  • @Jascol ...in your humble opinion. Don't you love Orwell's hypocritical "... the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active"? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 26 '15 at 11:23
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First, I agree that the example, as you stated it, does indeed sound a little strange. But I believe that it is the (over-)simplicity of the example -- a very short sentence, with no context around it -- that makes it sound strange. And I'm not saying anything about you; of course it is the case that these are precisely the kinds of examples that are used when teaching grammar.

In my scenario below, I add what I believe is the much needed context -- I include the original sentence as part of a larger sentence. When you read it out loud, hopefully you will agree that it sounds exactly as it should!

In this scenario, some townspeople are complaining to a councilman that they have not yet received an important letter about changes to one or more of the County's tax laws. So, the speaker (the councilman) wants to let everyone know that a process was started a few days ago, in which a letter detailing the changes will be sent to every household in town, but that the process has not yet finished. That is the important point: it is a process that was started in the past, and it is still ongoing. Not all letters have been sent.

Secondly, in order to even justify using the passive voice for this, we can assume that in this scenario, the councilman is a crafty politician who does not want to be held personally responsible if anything goes wrong, for example if a large number of families eventually complain that they never received their copy of the letter. So, he never wants to mention who will be sending out the letters. He has decided that he wants to the make the "Letters" the subject of his sentence when he promises everyone that they will receive their own personal copy of the letter. Therefore, he uses the passive voice.

Letters have been being sent out to a great number of the households in this town already. Some households have received their copy of the letter already. Just to be clear, these letters started being sent out last Friday, which was when this office first learned of the changes that the County Commissioners made to the tax law.
I fully acknowledge that not every household in town has received their own copy of the letter yet; there are indeed more letters to be sent and more households to reach; but the letters will continue being sent out until each and every family in this town has received their own copy of this very important letter that spells out the changes in the law.

Now that I have used the phrase in a larger context in which I make it clear that there is an on-going process which was initiated in the past but has not yet completed, I can even use your original phrase all on its own and it won't sound strange at all. But it will sound even better if I insert the word "already".

Let me repeat: Letters have been being sent already; in fact, three people approached me before this meeting started and they informed me that they had received their copy of the letter yesterday afternoon. So, please be patient.

If some of the letters have already been sent, and if others have yet to be sent, then he pretty much has to use present perfect progressive to accurately and honestly convey this fact. And in his attempt to cleverly avoid taking (at least) full responsibility in case anything goes wrong, he decides to make the "Letters" the subject of his sentences. Once he makes that decision, he also has to go with the passive voice.

But even if someone disagrees with me and says, "He doesn't absolutely have to go with the passive voice", that's fine. That's all the same to me. What I would say, however, is that once the "out-of-context" sentence "Letters have been being sent" is put into a larger, meaningful context, I personally have absolutely no problem with the way the phrase sounds.

In this final example, note the use of the original phrase, to give at least a hint (to leave the door open) that this is possibly still an on-going process; and then note the second phrase in bold, which leaves no doubt that the process has not yet finished. I threw in the third phrase in bold just to add a little future into the whole mix. :-)

Let me make sure that everyone understands what has been happening with this situation in the past few days. Starting last Friday, these important letters have been being sent out. And although not all of them have been sent out, they most certainly will be. In fact, at this juncture, it is expected that all the letters will have been sent out by Thursday of this week.

Max

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"Letters have been being sent" sounds fine, to me. At any rate, it is the pattern of auxiliaries described by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures:

(Modal) (have+en) (be+ing) (be+en)

where the affixes are affixed to the following verb form (either auxiliary or real verb) by Affix Hopping. Your example is from

Letters have+en be+ing be+en send

which becomes, after affixes have hopped,

Letters have be+en be+ing send+en

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