Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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!”

I found another example regarding the same story online:

Who do you think ordered the tapes to be destroyed? (link)

These sentences are not wrong by any means; they’re just ambiguous, with the sensible intended readings, and the ridiculous unintended readings that I give them. The ambiguity is possible in most cases because of a chain of facts. First, there’s the fact that in the construction order NP to VP, the NP that serves as the direct object of order is also the understood subject of the infinitive to VP that follows. Second, when the verb is in the active voice, then its subject is typically the agent of the action named by the verb. (Exceptions: The subject could be the patient, as in the active-voice sentence They died. The subject could also be the experiencer, without taking any action at all, as in As he lay paralyzed, he could hear his captors’ conversation.) So let’s look at an example, with an active infinitive following order, whose subject (i.e. the direct object of order) is the agent of the action named by the infinitive:

I ordered him to destroy the tapes.

So the direct object of order here is also the agent of to destroy the tapes. The third fact is that when you give an order, it’s usually addressed to the person whom you intend to carry it out — in other words, the agent of the action. These three facts, then, bring it about that the direct object of order is usually an animate, more specifically human, entity, who is supposed to carry out the order. If you get too attached to that association, then sentences like the ones above can sound funny.

To prove that the direct object of order does not have to be the agent of the following infinitive, a useful tool for a syntactician is to try out expletive subjects. This is not expletive as in “expletives deleted”; this is expletive in its earlier sense of something serving as a filler. In other words, “dummy subjects” that don’t refer to anything, but are there because English requires them. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Congress should order there to be an investigation.
The hubristic king ordered it to rain.

These sentences are grammatical without any confusion about who’s receiving the order.

Digression: Look what happens when you take one of these sentences where order takes an NP plus a passive infinitive, and you put order itself into the passive voice:

The tapes were ordered to be destroyed.

It looks like a double passive, doesn’t it? But it’s not. Unpassivize this sentence, and you end up with the sentence we started with, with order in the active voice, and a passive infinitive (to be destroyed) still hanging around. On the other hand, if you take a true double passive such as

The evidence was attempted to be destroyed.

and unpassivize it, both passives turn into actives:

He/She/They/Someone attempted to destroy the evidence.

Another difference is that in a true double passive such as this one, the one doing the attempting is the one who (if successful) does the destroying. In contrast, in our false double passive examples, the arrogant bastard who did the ordering was not the spineless lackey who did the destroying.

Digression complete. The syntactic term for the kind of direct object you find with verbs such as order — that is, the kind that works syntactically as a direct object of the main verb, but is connected semantically only to the main verb’s infinitival complement — is a raised object, since one way to look at it is as an infinitival subject that has been “raised” up to become the direct object of the main verb. There is also such a thing as a raised subject, but I’ll save that for my next post, regarding people who tell Arnold Zwicky he’s failed to do things.

2 Responses to “He Ordered the Tapes to Be Destroyed”

  1. David said

    By the way, your RSS subscription link is broken. When I click on the little orange icon, I get feed://http//, which is an invalid URL. Deleting the “feed://” and putting a : after the http allowed me to subscribe.

  2. Chris said

    I believe there seems to be several variants (all are acceptable to me to varying degrees):

    a) X ordered the tapes to be destroyed.
    b) X ordered the tapes be destroyed.
    c) X ordered the tapes destroyed.
    d) X ordered that the tapes be destroyed.

    Oddly, I garden-path least on (b) and (c), both reduced relative clauses.

    This may have a bit to do with the semantic features of the object. If we replace “the tapes” with the pronoun “him/he” and a plausible subject like “The judge” and subordinate verb like “hanged”, I get some interesting judgments:

    a) ?The judge ordered him to be hanged.
    a’) *The judge ordered he to be hanged.
    b) *The judge ordered him be hanged.
    b’) The judge ordered he be hanged.
    c) The judge ordered him hanged.
    c’) *The judge ordered he hanged.
    d) *The judge ordered that him be hanged.
    d’) The judge ordered that he be hanged.

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