Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Raising and control’ Category

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.

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 20 Comments »

Cat Sniffers

Posted by Neal on November 14, 2008

inhalantssinatraDoug’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. [1] 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.

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Posted in Cats, Lexical semantics, Raising and control, The darndest things | 4 Comments »

Finished Folding

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2008

Not too long ago, we were picking up the house to get ready for some company. (OK, not literally picking up the house, but you knew that, right?) My wife laid out the agenda for the boys and me, pointing out Legos and library books on the living room floor, clutter on the kitchen counter, and a full laundry basket on the bed. As she pointed to that last item, she said:

This needs to be finished folding.

My syntax sensors started tingling. What had set them off? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 14 Comments »

He Ordered the Tapes to Be Destroyed

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2007

I watched some of the news this morning, and saw correspondent Andrea Mitchell talking about the illegally erased torture videotapes at the CIA. I was very interested to hear if anyone has been arrested for this outrage, or at the very least fired. Needless to say, I’m still waiting. The first line Mitchell spoke was about some arrogant bastard (not her words) in the CIA who had ordered the destruction. I didn’t catch the name, though I’m guessing it was Jose Rodriguez. Anyway, she said:

[Whoever it was] ordered the tapes to be destroyed.

When she said that, I pictured someone standing in front of a stack of videotapes and barking out, “Attention, all you videotapes! This is an order! Be destroyed!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguity, Double passives, Raising and control | 2 Comments »

Double Passives, in English and Turkish

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2007

Back in 2004, I first noticed sentences like these:

Despite intense curiosity, the plot of Gary Trotter and the Deathly Marshmallows was managed to be kept a secret almost until its release date.

Unfortunately, one bookstore’s copies were neglected to be locked away, and an employee posted lots of spoilers on her MySpace page.

The unusual property of sentences like these is that not one but two verbs are put in the passive voice. You can’t say the plot “managed to be kept secret”, because it sounds like the plot is an animate thing, capable of managing to do things. Similarly for the books neglected to be locked away, which implies that books are animate. On the other hand, you can’t say the plot “was managed to keep secret” or that the books “were neglected to lock away”, because those phrasings just aren’t English. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Double passives, Raising and control | 3 Comments »


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