John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford). Doing Our Own Thing (2003). pp. 16 Bottom - p. 17.

  One of my favorites is that as late as the 1800s, many stewards of "good English" considered a sentence like "A house is being built over there" wrong, with "A house is building over there" being correct. "The book is being printed" was "vulgar, " "The book is printing" was "right." The year after Gettysburg, one grammarian was groaning about this par- ticular "inaccuracy" that had "crept into the language, and is now found everywhere." In 1883, Harper's Weekly presented a "joke" in which this "inaccuracy" impeded communication across the generations:

Old Gentleman—Are there any houses building in your village?

Young Lady—No Sir, there is a new house being built for Mr. Smith, but it is the carpenters who are building.

Well, har har!—there's wit for the ages. Or not—the joke is opaque to us and anyone now alive (imagine it as a quick blackout exchange between Artie Johnson and Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In followed by them breaking into "The Swim" to that bouncy, saxy music!). This is because now "The house is being built" is ordinary and "The house is building" sounds like something from the same Martian who would regale us with "I and Billy went to the store." Language changes whether we like it or not. What look like rules from on high within our lifespans are always, in grand view, rationalizations that we superimpose upon language for impres-sionistic reasons, just as we think of a tomato as a vegetable instead of a fruit. Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln probably sensed "The house is being built" as newfangled, but now we don't—life went on and, really, we have bigger things on our plates.

R.L. Trask, Robert McColl Millar. Why Do Languages Change? (2010 Rev. ed). p. 8 Top.

  A good place to start is the progressive passive, as in My house is being painted. This form seems wholly unremarkable, but in fact it is a recent introduction into English. Until only a few generations ago, this form did not exist and could not be used. A speaker had to say instead either My house is painting, a form which now seems strange or worse, or My house is painted, which exists for us but has an entirely different meaning.
  In 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary I went to see if any play was acted. The intended sense is … was being acted, but this form was impossible for Pepys. About 1839, Charles Dickens wrote in his novel Nicholas Nickleby: [H]e found that the coach had sunk greatly on one side, though it was still dragged forward by the horses. The intended sense is … still being dragged forward, but Dickens, who would have known the new usage, obviously could not bring himself to use it. Indeed, we know that many people of the time considered it ‘vulgar’.

These books don't expound why the Passive Present Progressive was judged unbecoming.

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    I vote to leave this one open because it touches the ever-present notion of continuous language decline, a very familiar view on language evolution. Is there a nifty tag for this? Jul 26, 2018 at 10:37

1 Answer 1


McWhorter doesn't expound why the Passive Present Progressive was judged unbecoming.

The answer is in the text: because it was a grammatical innovation. Grammatical innovations are routinely seen as unbecoming by the communities that the innovation did not originate in, because they are perceived as a repudiation of their formerly shared linguistic norms. Whether the innovation makes sense or not has nothing to do with it. (We now regard the old passive "is building" as illogical, because it has no overt passive morphology, unlike other passives in English; that's why the form originated in the first place. But it was still an innovation.)

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