Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Getting a Raise and Losing Control

Posted by Neal on October 23, 2010

I was reading a letter to the editor last month. Near the end, it said,

[W]e are required to rebuke [homosexuals] as well as other sins trying to be imposed as being right in the eyes of God. (James M. McLane, Columbus)

Wow, I thought. This guy can use try as a raising verb!

So what exactly is a raising verb? I’ll get to that in a minute. First, I’ll talk some more about the verb try, since we’re already on that subject. In a sentence like I’m trying to help you, the subject of help is understood to be the same as the subject of am trying. It’s as if the verb try has taken its subject, made an invisible copy of it, and plugged it in for its verbal complement help to use as a subject. Syntacticians call this kind of verb a control verb, more specifically a subject-control verb, because its subject is said to “control” the subject slot of the verbal complement. Try, in fact, is the canonical control verb, almost always the one used to introduce the concept in introductory syntax classes.

But I said that James McLane was using try as a raising verb, so what is a raising verb? The canonical raising verb is seem, and at first glance, it behaves like a subject-control verb. In a sentence like Kim seems to like chicken wings, the subject of like is understood to be the same as the subject of seems: Kim. So far, this verb is acting the same as try. But as you look deeper, seem and try don’t behave so similarly after all…

The main difference is that unlike the try, seem doesn’t have anything to say about its subject. If someone is trying to do something, they’re taking actions that they believe will bring it about that they end up doing that something. On the other hand, if someone seems to do something, they might not actually be doing anything at all; all that is necessary is for it to look as if they are. In short, that’s the difference between subject-control verbs and raising verbs: Subject-control verbs say things about their subject, whereas raising verbs don’t.

This difference shows up in several ways. First of all, subjects of seem don’t have to be animate, whereas subjects of try do. Put an inanimate subject with seem, and you find yourself anthropomorphizing and imagining fantasy worlds in which objects have volition. Compare:

Sal tried to hit me.
?The rock tried to hit me.

Seem can even take subjects that don’t refer to anything at all: the so-called expletive or dummy subjects it and there. Try can’t:

It seems to be raining.
?/*It’s trying to rain.
There seemed to be a solution.
*There tried to be a solution.

In fact, the picture that emerges is that raising verbs don’t even have a real subject at all. The only constraints on the subject of seem are the constraints on possible subjects for the infinitive that follows it. For example, even though seem can take unusual dummy subjects, it can only do it when the infinitival verb can take them. For example:

There seems to be a problem.
*There seems to like chicken wings

And notice that if the infinitival complement of seem has any unusual requirements on its subject (like being a dummy subject), those same unusual requirements are imposed on the subject of seem:

It seems to be raining.
*My goldfish seems to be raining.

So when the letter-writer mentions “sins trying to be imposed”, we (or at least I) am forced to imagine sins as having thoughts and plans of their own, consciously doing things to get themselves imposed on on us. However, when I Google “trying to be imposed”, I see that using try as a raising verb isn’t that uncommon. Here are a few examples I just found (culled from a sparse field of a couple of dozen Google hits):

Separate but Equal did not work in the 50s, so why is that principle trying to be imposed on a part of our population?
Kosovo is a tragic joke trying to be imposed on the world.
Many of us have had to put up with a lot of crap trying to be imposed on us from such unfounded beliefs.

But what’s a speaker to do if they just can’t use try that way? That’s where double passive forms like being tried to be imposed come to the rescue for some speakers (though not terribly many). For example:

Islamic Sharia was being tried to be imposed by highly illiterate and negative people of the society…
This is an experiment currently in process in Iran, and being tried to be imposed across the Muslim world.

But if you can’t use try as a raising verb, and double passives are ungrammatical for you, then you’re out of luck. This is a corner in the English language for which nice, clear rules (or workarounds) haven’t emerged yet.

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20 Responses to “Getting a Raise and Losing Control”

  1. Ryan said

    I’ve lived in northwest Oregon all my life (20 years now), and I’ve certainly heard and certainly said “it’s trying to rain” without batting an eye. More evidence for try as a raising verb?

    • The Ridger said

      And I’m from Tennessee and “It’s trying to rain” is perfectly normal for me, too. Maybe the weather it has more implied volition?

      I can’t say “sins trying to be imposed”, though. I’d have to say “sins people (or “they”) are trying to impose”.

    • Julie said

      Same here, and I’ve lived in Northern California for 50 years. If you live on the coast, it’s often “trying to rain.”

    • Neal said

      Interesting. I think it’s possible I could say “It’s trying to rain,” but I’d be thinking to myself, “That sounded weird, like the weather is conscious, but I couldn’t find a better way to say it in time.” So, two possibilities suggest themselves:

      1.For these speakers, try is indeed a raising verb. In this case, you’d expect they could also say things like “There tried to be some beer in the fridge.”

      2. For these speakers, “weather it” is interpreted as a (possibly figuratively) animate, referential subject. In this case, these speakers presumably still have try as a control verb, and find sentences like There tried to be some beer in the fridge and phrases like the one in the letter to the editor ungrammatical.

      • The Ridger said

        I think the second. I couldn’t say “there tried to be some beer” or even “there tried to be some rain”. No, on second thought the rain one sounds okay, actually. So it must be that “weather” is treated as volitional in my dialect. Sort of like dances and card games are animate in Russian, though nobody really thinks they’re alive.

        That is fascinating!

      • “It’s trying to rain” sounds fine to me, but to me it suggests the speaker is consciously anthropomorphising as opposed to merely using an anthropomorphic idiom. Wonder how others think of it.

        And in response to the post:

        I seem to understand your blog post.
        I try to understand your blog post.
        It seems I understand your blog post.
        It tries I understand your blog post.

      • The Ridger said

        I don’t consciously anthropomorphize weather. I just think the language used with the weather-it lends itself more than, say, the time-it.

      • Estel said

        I think I also fall in the second category. From the west coast of Canada, for what that’s worth. But I make a lot of things figuratively animate, not just weather. I’d have no problem saying the kettle was trying to boil, or my food was trying to burn. (And in that latter case, I’m certainly not trying to burn my food.)

  2. Glen said

    I’m struck by Mr. McLane’s apparent belief that homosexuals are a sin. I thought only acts and thoughts could be sins. But ‘homosexuals’ is in brackets; what did the original say, ‘them’?

    • The Ridger said

      Yes, it said “them”, referring back to an earlier reference to “homosexual people”. Here’s the original – God loves and we should love all homosexual people. We are not required to love their actions, and we are required to rebuke them as well as other sins trying to be imposed as being right in the eyes of God.

      • Ellen J, said

        I think “them” is referring to their actions. That makes more sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to rebuke people we love. No, we rebuke their sins (their actions), which we don’t love.

      • Ellen K, said

        P.S. Thanksfully, this issue of whether “them” refers back to “homosexuals” or “their actions” doesn’t affect the topic of the initial post.

        And, oops, typo on my name there. Should be Ellen K. like in this post.

      • The Ridger said

        I suppose it could be “their actions”, but trust me: people like him rebuke people they claim to love all the damned time.

      • Neal said

        Thanks, Ridger, for saving me the trouble of looking up the original letter again. And Ellen, I’m with the Ridger here: For me, rebuke has to have an animate direct object. If I hadn’t been so busy commenting on the the weird passive construction, I might have commented on this semantically sloppy coordination of animate and inanimate objects for this verb.

      • Glen said

        Not to defend Mr. McLane (inasmuch as I find his position ridiculous in any formulation), I think the antecedent for ‘them’ is clearly the actions, not the people. I say this because McLane’s whole point in the quoted passage is to distinguish between actions and people. He’s enunciating the “love the sinner, hate the sin” position taken by many Christians. “God loves and we should love all homosexual people,” he says, and then: “We are not required to love their actions.”

        In that context, I think it likely that he was just misusing the word ‘rebuke’ to mean ‘condemn’, and what he’s condemning is homosexual activity (not homosexual people). This interpretation is supported by his use of the word ‘other': “we are required to rebuke them and *other* sins.” Unless he thinks that a person can *be* a sin, it seems more likely that ‘them’ refers to sinful actions.

      • The Ridger said

        Whether it’s a misuse of “rebuke” or not, “rebuke sins” is extremely common usage among Christians of a certain persuasion. (Just Google “rebuke their sins” to see what I mean.) I grew up hearing it on the radio and TV.

    • The Ridger said

      Meant to add: I wasn’t having trouble with “rebuke” taking “their actions” as its object, I was just coordinating “them” and “their”. Coordinating? Is that what I mean? Both were taking the same antecedent instead of being sequential… You know, I should go to bed; I can’t think of words.

  3. Keri said

    I’m from Connecticut. I don’t think I’ve heard “trying to rain.”

    Also, I second The Ringer: “I can’t say “sins trying to be imposed”, though. I’d have to say “sins people (or “they”) are trying to impose”.”

  4. John said

    I’m in Britain, and “It’s trying to rain”, “It’s been trying to rain all day” etc are common expressions.

  5. I think this has sorta been alluded to, and I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but I think that this use of try as a “raising” verb is really just the best attempt to put such a complex (verb) phrase into its passive form.

    There are sins. There is someone who wants to impose those sins as being right. That someone tries to impose those sins as being right. But that someone is not actually known, and so is left out of the sentence by way of passivization. Thus, “we are required to rebuke the sins trying to be imposed [on us] as being right in the eyes of God.”

    I don’t think it shares the same semantic constraints as seem in this case.

    …Or something like that. I’m not sure if I lost myself in my own argument here.

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