Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Questionable Intentions

Posted by Neal on September 26, 2011

I was listening to (I believe it was) this episode of The Tobolowsky Files (the podcast I wrote about in this post). At one point in the episode, Tobolowsky said:

It was intended for me to find.

Interesting, I thought. That’s almost like one of those double passives I’ve been collecting. I wrote it down and forgot about it for a while.

Some time later, I was reading an entry on drapetomania on Romeo Vitelli’s blog Providentia (“a biased look at psychology in the world”). Drapetomania was the name of the psychological disorder, peculiar to black slaves, of wanting to escape. The term was coined by a Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851, who said:

If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy.

There it was again! A weird passive clause involving the verb intend and an infinitival verb (to find, to occupy), and … well, let me explain.

So in an ordinary passive clause, the subject is what would be a direct object if the clause were active. Take the passive clause Luigi was called (by Mario). The subject Luigi would show up as the direct object of the main (and only) verb in the corresponding active clause Mario called Luigi. This is true even for transitive verbs that also take an infinitive. For example, take the passive clause Luigi was told (by Mario) to throw the banana peels. The subject Luigi once again shows up as a direct object of the main verb in the active clause Mario told Luigi to throw the banana peels.

But the intend examples are different. Looking at Tobo’s sentence It was intended for me to find, let’s take the subject it and try to make it the direct object of intend in an active clause:

Someone intended it for me to find.

Now that might not actually be bad grammar for everyone. For me it’s pretty shaky, and I’m certain that the equivalent active clause for It was intended for me to find is actually this one, with it as the direct object not of the main verb intended, but of the infinitival verb find:

Someone intended for me to find it.

Somehow the direct object of the embedded verb got promoted all the way up to subject of the main verb. The same with the Cartwright example, whose active-voice equivalent would be something like, this with the subscripted gap as the direct object of occupy, not intended:

…that submissive statei which someone intended for them to occupy __i

In this respect, these intend passives are like double passives such as Others were attempted to be killed. The active version of that sentence would not be *Someone attempted others to be killed, but a clause with others as the direct object of the infinitival verb kill, like this:

Someone attempted to kill others.

The main difference between the double passives and the intend passives is that in the double passive, the main verb and the embedded verb show up as passives (was intended … to find), while in the intend passive, only the main verb does (were attempted to be killed). The reason you don’t get double passivization with intend for X to Y seems pretty clear: You’ve got a second subject intervening between the main verb and the infinitival one. Look what happens if you try to make both verbs passive:

It was intended for me to be found.

Now, all of a sudden, we’re talking about someone finding not “it”, but “me”.

There are other versions of intend for which you can find its infinitival complement passivized. There’s intransitive intend, which can form double passives just like attempt can: Others are intended to be killed. For some speakers, there’s even transitive intend, as in He intends others to be killed. That version of intend isn’t in my active grammar, but if it were, then Others are intended to do be killed would be an unremarkable passive.

Having come across this unusual passive with intend twice, in sources separated by more than 150 years, I wondered how common it was, so I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found a handful more:

  • The love that was intended for us to feel comes up at these times.
  • In this lesson, which was intended for teachers to learn first and then show their students, a group sits in a large circle.
  • This packet was intended for students to use in studying with their parents the content they learned in the music classroom.
  • Because the design is intended for anyone to be able to build, the materials are economical and the shape of the house basic.
  • Signals may be intended for us to detect or they may be deliberately obfuscated to thwart accidental detection.
  • we have revealed a Pandora’s box of events that were never intended for us to see in the first place.

I also found a couple in the British National Corpus:

  • the Spirit had first of all to inspire Peter with his vision of the unclean animals in the sheet which were intended for him to eat
  • since the picture was intended for Handel to keep

And in the Corpus of Historical American English:

  • Ulf Jarl saw the cook’s scullion pour something into a broth that was intended for me to eat.
  • “I knew that was what they were after!” said Mrs. Tetchy to her husband, in a voice that was intended for us to hear.

Not all the results I found when I searched for “[be] intended for * to” were relevant. Some were impersonal passives with a dummy it for a subject, and the direct object of the infinitival verb right where it should be, like this one from COCA:

  • I think it was intended for us to keep our hands and bodies close to the earth.

Other examples have a referential subject that doesn’t really fit syntactically into the infinitival phrase. For these, I have to mentally replace “for X to” with “so that X can”:

  • Iridium always was intended for people to communicate in places where people couldn’t communicate.
  • This is intended for readers to have a general view of Taiwan’s aid programs.
  • Town hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense.

I haven’t checked the Google Books corpus or other corpora, but other examples are welcome, from the corpora or your own experience.

In your own personal English grammar, what do you say? What do you do when you want to say that someone (you don’t know or don’t want to say who) intended you to do find X, and you want to put X as the focus of the sentence? Do you say, “X, I was intended to find”? Do you say “X was intended for me to find”? Or are you just plain out of luck, with recourse only to a complete rephrasing?

4 Responses to “Questionable Intentions”

  1. Rachel said

    I noticed a double passive the other day and thought you might be interested:
    “I wonder […] whether that distinction should even be bothered to be made”

  2. Riley said

    The following sentences are acceptable to me:

    He intended me to find it.
    He intended for me to find it.
    I was intended to find it.

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