Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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? My wife had been expressing a thought involving some folding, some stuff to be folded, and a folder — not the kind you file documents in, but the kind that can take orders to fold laundry. If my wife had said it with the folder as the subject, it would have been something like this:

Somebody needs to finish folding this.

But instead, she was pointing at the laundry and making it the subject. In order for that to happen, this has to get past not one (folding), not two (finish folding), but three verbs (need to finish folding) to stake its claim as the subject.

If we were dealing with just the verb fold, like this…

Somebody is folding the laundry.

…then making the laundry the subject would be a simple matter of putting fold into the passive voice:

The laundry is being folded.

If we were dealing with just the two verbs, finish and fold, like so…

Somebody has finished folding the laundry.

…then there’d be three ways to make the laundry into the subject. One would be to just make folding passive, like this:

The laundry has finished being folded.

However, because of an ambiguity in finish that I’ll talk about in a minute, it’s possible for this version of the sentence to paint a strange picture, in which the laundry is taking an active role in causing the action to be completed. Even though it’s perfectly possible to say things like It finished raining, where no one is causing the finishing, when I hear The laundry has finished being folded, I still find myself picturing the clean laundry picking itself up out of the basket and doing something or other to bring about the folding. So as a second option, you might do what some English speakers would do with for a sentence like Someone tried to fold the laundry or You forgot to fold the laundry, and passivize not only the fold, but also the try or forget:

The laundry was tried to be folded.
The laundry was forgotten to be folded.
The laundry was finished being folded.

This option is the double passive that’s been discussed here before. The third option is to passivize just the finish, and leave folding in the active voice, ending up with:

The laundry was finished folding.

This phrasing known as a long or remote passive, and is how German, Japanese, and some Romance and other languages handle this kind of situation. English typically doesn’t have long passives; sentences like *The laundry was forgotten to fold or *The laundry was managed to fold just don’t fly. All the same, it’s been observed (by Shin Fukuda, p. 7) that finish is exceptional in that it can head up a long passive in English, as we just saw.

Even with to be finished folding explained away, there’s still the question of what happens with needs, the first verb in the original sentence. I’ll start by removing finish from the picture, and just looking at a sentence with need and fold:

Someone needs to fold the laundry.

Making this into the subject is easy:

This needs to be folded.

But wait! Why does this sound so natural? Why doesn’t it sound weird, the way The laundry finished being folded did? The short answer is that need is a subject-raising verb, but for that to make sense I’d better explain what a subject-raising verb is.

A subject-raising verb is one that says something not about some person or thing, but about an entire proposition. To use the quintessential example of a raising verb, take seem. In the sentence It seems that Kim is asleep, the seeming is about the state of affairs in which Kim is asleep. Although it’s possible to use seem with a meaningful noun phrase for a subject — Kim seems to be asleepKim is not so much an honest-to-goodness subject of seems, but a subject of be asleep that has been “raised” to fill the subject slot for the higher-up verb seems. Evidence? There’s the fact that the only suitable subjects for seem are those that are suitable for the infinitive that follows it. Want to use a meaningless subject like there or it with seem? You can — but only if the infinitive that goes with it is a verb that can go with there or it:

{*There, It} seems to be snowing.
{There, *It} seems to be only one person who can do this.

The same goes for need:

{*There, It} needs to rain soon.
{There, *It} needs to be a cease-fire.

Another property of subject-raising verbs, as it happens, is that you can take their infinitival complement and change its voice from active to passive or vice versa, without changing the meaning of the whole sentence. For example:

Glen seemed to have broken the remote control.
The remote control seemed to have been broken (by Glen).

You can’t do this with just any verb that takes an infinitive. Substitute tried for seemed in those last examples, and the second one will suddenly sound ridiculous. Unlike seem, try does have something to say about its subject: That it’s animate, and is intentionally taking actions that it believes will bring about a desired state of affairs. Remote controls do not have these properties. For the same reason, you can’t use the dummy subjects there and it with try, either, as you can see if you plug try into the there / it examples above. This kind of verb, in contrast to a subject-raising verb, is known as a subject-control verb.

So with need established as a subject-raising verb, it’s no surprise that it can raise an agent subject from an active infinitive (to fold the laundry) or a patient subject from a passive infinitive (to be folded) with no other changes necessary. Furthermore, since a subject-raising verb takes whatever subject goes with the infinitive that comes after it, if The laundry was finished folding is OK, then so is The laundry needs to be finished folding. Case closed.

Or is it? There are two complications. First, I talked about an ambiguity of finish earlier. I can now identify the ambiguity as one between finish as a subject-raising verb and finish as a subject-control verb. The raising finish is the one that can take impersonal subjects (e.g. It finished raining). The control finish is the one that takes an animate subject, leading to the strange scenario of animated laundry. But if finish can be a subject-raising verb, why am I drawn to the bizarre subject-control parsing when I hear The laundry finished being folded? I don’t know.

The second complication has to do with subject-raising verbs and double passives. Double passives don’t occur with subject-raising verbs. Double passives serve a useful purpose with subject-control verbs, since a sentence like The laundry forgot to be folded does not mean the same thing as Someone forgot to fold the laundry. The double passive The laundry was forgotten to be folded avoids the implication of sentient laundry. But since a sentence like The remote control seems to have been broken means the same thing as Someone seems to have broken the remote control, there is no need for a double passive. And if need is a subject-raising verb, we should never find sentences like this one (from the nine I found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Your Social Security number will be needed to be provided for identification for this testing.

Evidently, then, need can also be a subject-control verb. Additional evidence is the fact that, like other subject-control verbs, it can take a pronoun direct object instead of an infinitive:

Lee tried / forgot / needed / *seemed it.

And intuitively, need does seem to say something about its subject in a sentence like Lee needed it: Lee was lacking something. So if need can be a subject-control as well as a subject-raising verb, the question once again is why I was not drawn to the same bizarre, animate-laundry, subject-control reading with The laundry needs to be finished folding that I got with The laundry finished being folded. And for that matter, why didn’t my wife say

This is needed to be finished folding

? It may just be that double passives aren’t part of my wife’s grammar. Not everyone has them. In any case, it’s not the folding that’s the problem, it’s the putting away. Left on their own, Doug and Adam are perfectly happy morning after morning to select the day’s outfit from piles of clean laundry on their floor. The rule I’ve instituted is that if they wear one of the clean items instead of putting it away, then they must immediately put away the other items. They, of course, interpret this to mean that if they don’t get dressed from the clean laundry pile, that they don’t have to put their laundry away. Silly boys!

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14 Responses to “Finished Folding”

  1. viola said

    Syntax sensors? I didn’t realize we were reading The Real-Life Adventures of Linguistic Man. Oh goody! Do you have acute rhyming receptors and advanced lexicon lifters?
    What I’d really like to see is the laundry finishing folding itself…yours and ours. 🙂

  2. Lee said

    Viola – very funny 🙂

    I’d like to think that Linguistic Man would be able to come up with stunning anagrams faster than a speeding bullet. Now there’s a super power!


  3. The Ridger said

    Yes – picking up the house is not the same as picking the house up…

  4. viola said

    Never undersestimate the powers of Linguistic Man.

  5. viola said

    Oops. Underestimate. I am very confident you will forgive that typo in the spirit of humanity.

  6. Ellen K. said

    “picking up the house is not the same as picking the house up”

    The latter gives me an image of the house jumping in the car to go out on a date.

  7. TootsNYC said

    Terry Pratchett, in his book “The Fifth Elephant,” has his main character, the rough-and-tumble police chief Sam Vimes, who is married to the genteel middle-aged former-spinster heiress, ponder the phrase:

    “The potatoes need eating up.”

    (Oh, and on the phrase “picking up the house,” the noun “the house” is serving as a collective noun, meaning “all the stuff in the house”)

  8. robin said

    Hey Neal,

    I wonder if your subject-control parsing, which was also my first reading of ‘needs to be finished folding’, has anything to do with the relative frequencies of ‘finish’ as a raising and control verb? I would guess that it usually functions as a control verb.

    Great stuff!!


  9. Neal said

    Hi, Robin,

    Thanks for reading! Your hypothesis could be right; I might check the Corpus of Contemp. Am. Eng. to check the relative frequencies there. However, what would I count as an instance of control? Would an animate subject be sufficient? Or should I take control to be the default, and only count it as raising when I have an expletive subject, or a subject that context clearly shows is not acting volitionally?

  10. Gordon P. Hemsley said

    Is it possible that “finished” and other subject-raising verbs rely on dummy pronouns (indefinite subjects, such as “it”), and cannot function with definite subjects (such as “the laundry”)?

    “There” is apparently an adverb, but I think it still falls under the category of “indefinite subjects”, at least in this context.

  11. robin said

    Hi Neal,

    As you suggest, an animate subject is probably the right criterion for a corpus search. I did a few quick and dirty searches of the Corpus of Cont. Am. Eng. — thanks for providing the link, btw — and found pretty solid evidence that ‘finished Xing’ and ‘finish Xing’ usually take animate subjects. A search for just ‘finish*’ (i.e. allowing for other suffixes) preceded by any noun gets the same result even though the following context doesn’t have to include a verb ending in ‘ing’. As you would expect, the latter search turned up more examples of inanimate subjects, still outnumbered by animate ones. My favorite possibly non-animate subject to give a strong showing in the results was the stock market, surfacing as things like ‘index’ and ‘NASDAQ’. If the market can be volatile, does that mean it’s animate?

    If you also did a search, did you find the same thing?

    Better go — the Olympics have almost finished airing.

  12. Neal said

    I searched for [finish].[vv*] [v?g] and got 1355 hits of some form of ‘finish’ plus a verb ending in -ing. A few of them were of the form BE+finished, which I ignored. All the ones I saw as I skimmed through had animate subjects, with the possible exception of “Northwestern University’s Center for Communication and Medicine recently finished making a 25-minute video of the Encks’ story, which medical students must watch”, and even there, I took the subject to be the people within the NUCCM. I also did a search for [finish].[vv*] followed by ‘raining’ or ‘snowing’ and didn’t find any. When I substituted ‘stop’, I got 58 and 14 hits, respectively, so it looks like ‘stop’ is the preferred alternative for expletive subjects. So it’s consistent with your hypothesis.

    The linguistic term for dummy pronouns is “expletive subjects”, and you’re right, there is considered to be such a subject. When you say “definite subjects” you give a good example of one (the laundry), but I think you may have in mind the broader category of non-expletive subjects. Regarding expletive subjects and raising verbs: If a verb, such as seem, can itself take an expletive subject when it goes with a verb that can take one (e.g., it seems to be true that…, there seem to be three problems…), that’s pretty much a dead giveaway that we have a raising verb. But uncontroversially raising verbs can also take ordinary subjects; for example, John seems to like you. You wouldn’t want to say that seem is a control verb when it has an animate subject, because the subject is not really doing anything that qualifies as “seeming”. Also, there’s evidence from other languages, where certain verbs take subjects with unusual case forms. For example, I think Icelandic has a dative subject for the verb meaning ‘lack’. When this verb goes with a raising verb like ‘seem’, the raising verb’s subject is in the dative case, too.

  13. said

    My wife would have said, “Fold the laundry.” But then it would not have been necessary to say that, because I always fold the laundry.

  14. […] was me talking to Adam about a year ago, one move in my continuing campaign to make sure that he and Doug put away their clean laundry instead of using i…. Again, this is essentially a coordination of two VPs: get your pants out of the pile of clean […]

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