Posted by Neal on November 14, 2008
Doug’s friend Grant likes petting our cats, and is especially pleased when one of the shy ones lets him pet him. I remember his excitement when he was finally able to pet our cat Barney. Barney, you may recall, we put to sleep last year, but now we have a new addition, a white, blue-eyed, polydactyl cat named Sinatra, whose owner was no longer able to take care of him. He spent the first couple of days hiding in our closet, but is now completely at home, tussling with the other cats and chasing them through the kitchen and into the basement. But he’s not quite comfortable enough to let just any kids pet him. Grant tried without success when he came over last week.
“Hey, Doug,” Grant asked, “Did Sinatra let you pet him when you first got him?”
“No,” Doug said, “but he did let me sniff him.”
“Oh! He let me sniff him, too, just now!” Grant said.
Nonplussed, I asked, “You guys sniff cats?”
Doug tried to put together a correction. “He let us… He let… We held out our hands and he sniffed them.”
Ah, now that was a much more typical cat-human scenario. But why had the sniffer become the sniffed in the earlier statements Doug and Grant had made?
Maybe it was just that Grant had asked the question Did Sinatra let you pet him?, and primed with this template, Doug replied by taking out the pet and putting in something that Sinatra did let him do, and forgot to adjust the semantic roles of who did what. The trouble with that hypothesis is that we’d also predict the same kind of mistake might happen if Grant had instead asked, “Did you pet Sinatra?” If he’d said that, I doubt Doug would have slipped up and said, “No, but I sniffed him.” Doug didn’t think so either. Well, he might say such a thing, he admitted, but only if he really meant that he had put his nose up to Sinatra and sniffed him.
I think the mistake had a lot to do with the fact that Grant and Doug were each talking about two events: an event of Sinatra permitting some action to occur, and an event of Grant or Doug performing that action. In many (maybe even most) cases, the direct object of let has two roles to fill.  First, there’s the role of the affected participant in the letting event. In all the sentences listed below, the direct object of let refers to the person who receives the permission, the person for whose benefit some obstacle was removed, the person who undergoes a change of state from inability to do something to ability to do it, or at least from uncertainty to certainty about being able to do it:
Sinatra let me approach him.
Sinatra let me touch him.
Sinatra let me pet him.
Sinatra let me pick him up.
Second, there’s the role of the agent of the other event. In all the sentences listed above, the direct object of let also refers to the approacher, the toucher, the petter, or the picker-upper.
So now when it comes to extending your hand for a cat to sniff it and rub his cheek on it if you’re worthy, what goes in the direct object slot of let? Well, in the subject slot it definitely has to be Sinatra, since he’s the one deciding what Doug will be able to do. There are two remaining participants in the event: Doug, the sniffed party; and Sinatra again, this time in the role of the sniffer. Doug fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the one affected by the letting. Sinatra fits into the direct object slot by virtue of being the performer of the permitted action. Which one wins?
We know the outcome: Doug won. And how could the sentence have been accurately rephrased while retaining the let? Something like this:
Sinatra let himself sniff my hand.
That comes closer to the truth than Sinatra let me sniff him, but it still sounds weird, as if it’s Sinatra receiving permission and not Doug. Doug could also have said,
Sinatra let me get near enough for him to sniff my hand
and then left it up to the hearer to use R-inference to conclude that Sinatra then actually did sniff the hand.
Or he could have used other wordy options, all of which would have required more thinking than it took to take Sinatra let you pet him as a template and swap out pet for sniff. These considerations make Doug and Grant’s mistake understandable, though still a mistake, of course.
One more factor that may have let the mistake go undetected long enough to escape Doug’s and Grant’s lips is the fact that in a sniffing event, the thing that gets sniffed is physically affected a lot less than the affected item for other actions. I don’t think Doug would have said
Sinatra let me lick him!
unless, of course, he had actually been talking about getting a tongueful of all that white fur.
1. For hardcore syntacticians: Yes, sentences like He let the room get trashed (alongside He let the partiers trash the room) and You mustn’t let there be a riot on your watch point to let as an object-raising verb, with a non-thematic direct object. I think let also works as a control verb, though, with a thematic direct object.