The rarest verb tense in English

Ever wondered what the rarest ‘tense’ in English is, and how rare it is?

No?

Hmm… Just me then.

Anyway, just in case you’re still interested in finding out (and my students always are), the rarest verb tense in English (we should properly call it an aspect) is the future perfect continuous in the passive voice. The future perfect continuous is easy enough, although rare, as in this invented example:

“By March next year we will have been making furniture in this workshop for 100 years.”

By turning such sentences into the passive voice, we get the super rare future perfect continuous passive:

“By March next year furniture will have been being made in this workshop for 100 years.”

Whenever I show this theoretical example (about 3 times in 21 years of teaching) my students ask: ‘Does it really exist in practice?’

The short answer is: ‘no’. It’s so long and clumsy that it doesn’t even sound right, although it is. On one occasion I sent my students home to try and find really examples on the Internet. Only 3 made it to school the next day, the others were never seen again. And all that those 3 could find were examples from websites on English grammar showing theoretical examples only.

So I decided to do my own search. I used an advanced Google search to find the key auxiliary combination “will have been being”, managing to block out grammar related websites by removing certain words from the search (e.g. “grammar”, “passive”, etc.). I got just seven pages of results, most of which were simply incorrect uses where the future perfect simple passive would have sufficed:

“These products are the most simple and therefore the quickest to install, as all of the configuration will have been being completed at the point of manufacture.” (source)

‘will have been completed’ would have been fine here. There were a few examples of the very rare future perfect continuous (active) of the verb ‘be’, as in the title of a song by a band called ‘The Slaps’: “Will have been being around”, which is a surprisingly good song (listen here) that makes the perfect accompaniment for a tense review lesson.  And there were also a few examples of the even rarer future perfect simple followed by ‘be’ in gerund form:

“It doesn’t make me unique, but I expect that from today until my last day, my greatest accomplishment will have been being a mother to three great kids.” (source)

But no legitimate, ‘correct’ examples of the tense I was looking for. Eventually, after much trial and tribulation (and I have to admit, it took me the best part of half an hour) I found some apparently legitimate versions of the future perfect continuous passive that had not been created simply to demonstrate the usage of the verb. Just 11 in total, on the whole Internet, making it very, very, very rare, so rare in fact that, if I hadn’t done the advanced search, my search results would have been being sifted through to this day (in case you’re wondering, that’s the subjunctive form of the future perfect continuous passive, used here in a rare 4th conditional structure*). What was perhaps most interesting were the contexts that required the future perfect continuous passive. Perhaps the clearest example was from a chat room on motor-homes. One contributor wanted to use will to make a prediction, combining it interestingly with past continuous:

“While you were driving there your leisure-batteries will have been being charged by your motorhome’s alternator at over 14V.”  (source)

But there were others, including a tweet from Sainsbury’s supermarket in response to a comment from a customer, who was outraged at seeing a lot of bread being thrown away at his local store:

“Hey Darren, this will have been being processed to be sent to an anaerobic digestion plant, or for animal… 1/2”

“…feed. We send no food waste to landfill, and we donate tinned and packed items to local food charities! Susanna 2/2”   (source)

As you can see here, this is what grammarians call a ‘two-tweet-tense’. Nobody has ever succeeded in using the future perfect continuous passive in a single tweet and lived to tell the tale.

future-perf-cont-pass-tweet
Fig. 1: Future perfect continuous passive: If it’s good enough for Sainsbury’s…

But without doubt, my favourite example, and the one that demonstrates the intrinsically Machiavellian redundancy of the future perfect continuous passive comes from a very long blog post on string theory. The writer needed to illustrate the process of ‘spaghettification’, a word that really does exist to describe the important and commonly contemplated phenomenon (at least by particle physicists) of exactly how you would die if you fell into a black hole. And just in case you weren’t sure what that would look like, Wikimedia provide a helpful illustration (see Fig. 2). So here it is, without doubt, my favourite use of the future perfect continuous passive, the rarest verb tense in English (my emphasis):

“If you are falling into a black hole and your feet are, say, 2 meters closer to the BH than your head, then your feet will be experiencing much stronger gravitational force than your head does. Because of this, your body will have been being stretched until it is torn apart. Physicists even gave this process a humorous name, “spaghettification”. (source)

What future perfect continuous passive really looks like
Fig. 1: An artist’s impression of what the future perfect continuous passive does to the human body

Undoubtedly, the perfect way for an Italian astro-linguist to die. Thank you Aleksei Klimkin for providing the perfect visualisation of the rarest tense in English! Read Aleksei’s original article here.

*And by the way, I was being silly. There is no 4th conditional. Phew!

 

 

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8 thoughts on “The rarest verb tense in English

  1. hi
    nice post thanks : )
    the NOW corpus of web news gives 7 examples:
    WILL HAVE STOPPED BEING SHOCKED
    WILL HAVE STARTED BEING IMPLEMENTED
    WILL HAVE SEEN BEING THROWN
    WILL HAVE FELT HAVING BOUGHT
    WILL HAVE ESCAPED BEING HELD
    WILL HAVE ENJOYED GETTING CLEANED
    WILL HAVE ANTICIPATED BEING HIT

    generally +modal+ perfect continuous passives seem to be more common
    what do the main verbs in these constructions have in common do you think?
    ta
    mura

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mura,
    These are interesting examples, but they’re not future perfect continuous passive. I would parse these as future perfect simple (active) followed by an ‘ing’ form used as a noun (i.e. a gerund). To look at the first one, we could use a variety of nouns after ‘will have stopped’ (e.g. the car, everything, etc.) and the being here refers to a state. Other gerunds are possible (e.g. working, thinking, etc.). For future perfect continuous passive we’re looking for: will + have + been + being + past participle.

    Like

  3. Thanks a lot for referencing my article! I am really pretty hyped on that, although, truth be told, I have to admit that in no way did I expect such a reference to show up in an article like this one 🙂

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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