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At Hit the rolling Assyrian plain had come to an end, and the invading army had entered upon the low alluvium of Babylonia, a region of great fertility, intersected by numerous canals, which in some places were carried the entire distance from the one river to the other.

Does "were carried" have a passive structure, or is "carried" simply an adjective in this text?

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    I THINK this means that the canals in some places ran between one river and the other. "Carried" is a very odd verb to express this.
    – Mary
    May 29 '20 at 14:47
  • @Mary it was published in 1875 as far as I can tell, which would explain the unusual choice of word.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 15:16
  • It is the alluvium that is carried, The mud. OR: The canals ran the entire distance from one river to another. This 1875 book has a mistake.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 15:22
  • @Lambie since "were" is a plural verb (there is no reason to think it is in the subjunctive mood), its subject must be the only plural noun in the sentence, which is "canals." It must be that carry is used in an unfamiliar sense. Sure enough, there is sense 14 in the original OED: "to extend or continue (a line, a piece of work) in the same direction to a specified distance, or in a given direction."
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 15:52
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"Were carried" is a passive structure in your context. Adjectives modify the nouns, which is not the case here.


"Canals were carried" really sounds odd as mentioned in the comment. For example, "canals were placed," is more understandable.

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  • "The canals were full": full is an adjective. "The canals were carried": carried is a participle functioning as an adjective.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 14:55
  • @phoog "The canals were carried" is semantically defective in English. So Jan is right: It does sound odd because it's a mistake. The mud (alluvium) was carried by the canals between rivers. Let's try to help the OP who clearly does not know how to use a passive voice in English.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 15:13
  • @Lambie you haven't checked your OED, have you? See sense 14: to extend or continue (a line, a piece of work) in the same direction to a specified distance, or in a given direction. That phrase is not semantically defective in English, at least not in the English of 1875, when the phrase was published. It is not a mistake. It sounds odd because it is archaic. Canals do not carry mud. OP did not write this sentence; he is trying to read it. It was written by George Rawlinson.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 16:02
  • Canals most certainly can carry muddy water, which contains mud. sand and mud are carried down by a river.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 19:06
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Since past participles can function as adjectives, every passive construction can be seen as the verb "to be" and a predicate adjective in the form of a past participle.

The apple is red: red is a predicate adjective.

The apple is carried: is carried is a passive construction, and carried is a participial predicate adjective.


Much has been made in the comments of the supposedly incorrect use of carry and alluvium. Carry is used here in the 14th sense defined in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary:

to extend or continue (a line, a piece of work) in the same direction to a specified distance, or in a given direction.

There are two other uses of this sense in the same work (The Seven Great Monarchies by George Rawlinson). The first refers to a mine, meaning tunnel:

...he secretly gave orders that the chief efforts of his men should be directed to the formation of a mine, which should be carried under both the walls that defended the place, and enable him to introduce suddenly a body of troops into the very heart of the city.

The second refers to pilasters (an architectural ornament resembling a column):

The exterior ornamentation of the Sassanian buildings was by pilasters, by arched recesses, by cornices, and sometimes by string-courses. An ornamentation at once simple and elegant is that of the lateral faces of the palace at Firuzabad, where long reed-like pilasters are carried from the ground to the cornice, while between them are a series of tall narrow doubly recessed arches.

Alluvium is used here in a sense not found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is used in the same sense in one other passage in the book:

The army in Media, favored by the rugged character of the country, was able to maintain its ground without much difficulty; but that which had advanced by the line of the Euphrates and Tigris, and which was still marching through the boundless plains of the great alluvium, found itself suddenly beset by a countless host, commanded by Artaxerxes in person, and, though it struggled gallantly, was overwhelmed and utterly destroyed by the arrows of the terrible Persian bowmen.

Alluvium typically denotes soil deposited by a flooded river, but here it seems to refer to the region in general, as if it were a synonym for "the area of the alluvial plain." The closely related alluvion has senses that support this use; in particular, the legal sense of "land created by flooding" may be intended.

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  • It does not matter what you call it, the sentence's structure is OFF. Either the canals ran between rivers or the mud was carried through the canals between rivers.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 15:28
  • @Lambie no. It is an 1875 passage written by an erudite English historian. See sense 14 in the OED, which includes examples such as "the defences were not carried down to the water" and "...carry a wall from sea to sea."
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 15:55
  • The defences were not carried down to the sea is fine. But the canals cannot be said to be carried.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 16:05
  • @Lambie how is "the defences were not carried down to the sea" different from "the canal was carried from one river to the other"? Surely you don't imagine people transporting defensive walls.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 16:07
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x were carried by y is a passive structure.

The packages were carried by the girls into the house.

Compared to:

The girls carried the packages into the house.

If the alluvium is carried, it cannot be so far removed from the word canals:

Sample: low alluvium of Babylonia, a region of great fertility, intersected by numerous canals, which in some places were carried the entire distance from the one river to the other.

Generally, one would not say that an invading army enters the alluvium.

You might say: The invading army descended onto the low alluvial plain of Babylon, which was crossed by numerous canals that carried its mud in some places the entire distance between rivers.

the mud was carried by the canals. [passive verb]

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  • Alluvium's distance is not the primary reason for discounting it as the subject of "were"; it should take a singular verb, while "were" is plural.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 14:57
  • The sentence is unwieldy as written. The antecedent alluvium and the verb was, instead of were, would not put Humpty Dumpty together again or resolve all its issues. You might want to reconsider that dv of yours. Also, the Pullum thing of not recognizing passive verb usage is not helpful to ELLers.
    – Lambie
    May 29 '20 at 15:09
  • I will reconsider the downvote if you correct the answer. I have explained elsewhere why "carry" was used here with "canals" as its (passive) subject. Furthermore, canals do not carry mud, as they have insufficient current. Your rewriting of this sentence changes its meaning.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 15:58
  • Here's another use of the same sense in the same work, in this case referring to a mine: he secretly gave orders that the chief efforts of his men should be directed to the formation of a mine, which should be carried under both the walls that defended the place, and enable him to introduce suddenly a body of troops into the very heart of the city.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 16:41
  • Another: The exterior ornamentation of the Sassanian buildings was by pilasters, by arched recesses, by cornices, and sometimes by string-courses. An ornamentation at once simple and elegant is that of the lateral faces of the palace at Firuzabad, where long reed-like pilasters are carried from the ground to the cornice, while between them are a series of tall narrow doubly recessed arches.
    – phoog
    May 29 '20 at 16:44

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