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.