“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

11 responses to ““John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

  • Helen

    I’ve enjoyed your little posts, rather amusing. English is a subject whose path is littered with the bodies of broken rules.

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  • Eda

    This student has had a fool made of him by his teacher. Yes?

  • linguischtick

    I completely agree with the semantic weirdness of your student’s sentence. But there aren’t any problems with passivizing these kinds of sentences – the problem is that your “passives” aren’t really passive and they sound bad for different reasons.

    Consider your first example:

    I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans

    The passive version of this sentence is:

    A braided rug is being made out of old blue jeans (by me)

    The sentence you gave, the old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them, is not actually a passive at all, since it lacks any form of the verb “to be”. The same goes for the next two examples with the dog and the drapes. They all involve an active present perfect “have had” with a “made out of” complement. I completely agree that these are awkward and terrible sentences, but I don’t think they are passives.

    You last example is different:

    He’s trying to make something out of nothing

    The correct passive is:

    Something is trying to be made out of nothing (by him)

    This is the right passive, albeit still horrible prose, because the passive involves the promotion of the active object into subject position. Your version was:

    Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

    This isn’t passive because you promoted nothing which is sitting inside the prepositional complement to the verb. Also you did that thing again where you changed the verb to a present perfect (has been tried) when the original was a progressive (is trying) and passives have to keep the same tense/aspect as their active version.

    • RAB

      You’re completely right that they’re not grammatically passives. But the structures have a passivity about them. What would it be called? I think “John has been made a fool of” would be acceptable, albeit not particularly effective or energetic; “John has had a fool made out of him” retains the basic effect of a subject who does nothing but is acted upon by some other agent, and this is the basic effect also of the passive voice.

      I think the correct passive of “He is trying to make something out of nothing” is “something is being attempted to be made out of nothing by him,” no? If you let it try to do anything you lose the grammatical passive. You still don’t lose the passivITY, though.

      Thanks for keeping things precise.

  • linguischtick

    I think this is an example of a causative construction. And I agree these kinds of sentences have similar meanings. Both the causative and the passive allow for unknown agents. I’m making a purely grammatical point here about what counts as the passive voice.

    “I think the correct passive of “He is trying to make something out of nothing” is “something is being attempted to be made out of nothing by him,” no?”

    No, it can’t be because you’ve introduced a completely new verb in there. The original active verb is “trying”, which takes as a complement the phrase “to make something out of nothing”. The passive version of this sentence would have to have the same verb. The passive you gave corresponds to the active “He is attempting to make something out of nothing.”

  • RAB

    Sorry, I changed the vocabulary because “being tried to be made” shot me into a whole new issue I didn’t want to get into: the way students use “try.” I do see what you mean.

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