Etymology Grammar Usage

Can a body try to be hidden?

Q: A forensic witness in the Caylee Anthony murder case testified that the child’s plastic-wrapped body “was trying to be hidden.” And a newsletter publisher referred to fraud that “is trying to be perpetrated.” I’ve seen a couple of other trying examples in the news lately. Is this more than coincidence?

A: We’ve never come across this exact usage before, though a superficially similar one is quite common.

Let’s begin with the usage that caught your eye. We did a little googling and found some examples ourselves, including mosques, power stations, and marinas that were “trying to be built.”

What’s happening here seems to be a new twist on the passive voice.

In an ordinary passive construction, the object of the action becomes a passive subject: “the body was hidden” … “fraud is being perpetrated” … “a marina was being built.”

Nothing wrong there—those are perfectly grammatical passive constructions.

But in these new examples, the passive subject isn’t passive after all. It actually takes over the job of doing something to itself: “the body was trying to be hidden” … “a fraud is trying to be perpetrated” … “a marina was trying to be built.”

In other words, the thing that someone or something is trying to hide or perpetrate or build is raised to the position of the subject.

This isn’t a kosher way of using the verb “try.” Some other verbs, called “raising” verbs, can be used this way, but “try” isn’t one of them.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains “raising” verbs in a discussion of what it calls “to-infinitivals.” (In your examples, “trying” is followed by a “to” infinitive phrase: “to be perpetrated” … “to be hidden.”)

In its illustrations, Cambridge contrasts a raising verb, “seem,” with an ordinary verb, “hope.”

While “hope” requires a subject that’s “animate and typically human,” Cambridge says, the verb “seem” has no such restriction. It can “raise” almost any noun or noun phrase to the position of subject.

The authors use these sentences as examples: “This news hoped to convince them” versus “This news seemed to convince them.” The first sentence doesn’t work, but the second one does. News can’t “hope” (though it can “seem”) to convince.

Typical raising verbs, like “seem” and “appear,” don’t require a subject capable of performing the activity described by the verb. They can even have “dummy” subjects, as in “It seems to be …” or “There appears to be….”

But verbs like “try” and “hope” and “want” aren’t raising verbs. They require a subject capable of actually trying or hoping or wanting.

In short, a grammarian would say that the verb “try” in the examples you’ve found was being used ungrammatically as a raising verb.

Now, let’s discuss that more common usage that’s superficially similar to the one you asked about.

People use “non-raising” verbs in unconventional, attention-getting ways all the time, as in “That bungalow is trying to be a McMansion.”

This whimsical idiomatic usage may be anthropomorphic, but it isn’t ungrammatical.

A pseudo-passive version of the same sentence, however, wouldn’t be considered legit: “That bungalow is trying to be made into a McMansion.”

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