Forbidden OSR

« previous post | next post »

Nicholas Widdows writes about a clause he found in Toni Morrison's Beloved (p. 259):

(1a) the well is forbidden to play near

("in the free indirect speech of Bodwin, an elderly white man… not filtered through the thoughts or hearing of any of the black characters", according to Widdows). Every so often we post about some comprehensible examples that strike us and our correspondents as unacceptable — examples like this one — and then our task is to try to decide whether these examples are all inadvertent errors, or whether at least some of the instances represent a non-standard system different from our own. (Not infrequently, the latter turns out to be the case, to our astonishment.)

So Widdows and I spent some time searching for examples similar to (1a), so far without success. While we're waiting for more data (including judgments from people who find things like (1a) ok, if there are any), here are some remarks on the structure in (1), to make it clear just what would constitute a similar example.

The example in (a) has a subject (the well) and a copular predicative (is forbidden to play near), in which the complement of the copular verb is a predicative AdjP (adjective phrase), composed of the adjective forbidden and ITS complement, the VP to play near. This is an infinitival VP, composed of the infinitive marker to and its complement VP, play near, and play near consists of a head verb (play) and a PP complement to it, in which the object of the preposition near is missing. The crucial point is that the gap in the elliptical PP near corresponds to the subject of the whole clause (the well); the well is interpreted as the object of the preposition near. That is, (1a) is interpreted in the same way as the impeccable:

(1b) it is forbidden to play near the well

At this point, seasoned syntacticians will recognize that the relationship between (1a) and (1b) is formally parallel to the relationship between (2a) and (2b), and between (3a) and (3b):

(2a) Kim is hard to listen to ___.

(2b) It is hard to listen to Kim.

(3a) Sandy is easy to understand ___.

(3b) It is easy to understand Sandy.

In classic transformational grammar, this relationship is viewed, somewhat metaphorically, as a matter of "raising" an object (object of a preposition, as in (2), or direct object, as in (3)) within a VP complement in a clause to be the subject of that clause, by "moving" the object to subject function. This process is sometimes referred to (reasonably enough) as Object-to-Subject Raising (OSR), and in the case of (2) and (3) as Tough Movement, since many of the predicatives involved in the relationship there are adjectives or nouns denoting difficulty or ease: adjectives tough, easy, hard, impossible; nouns snap, bitch, devil. (Longer lists are given in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. 1246.)

Now, forbidden doesn't fit into any of the semantic subtypes enumerated in CGEL, and neither do semantically related items that can occur as predicatives in the (1b) structure: prohibited, taboo, verboten, proscribed. Like forbidden, these are bad (for me) in the (1a) structure:

(4a) *the well is prohibited/verboten/… to play near ___

(4b) it is prohibited/verboten/… to play near the well

Looking for (a)-type examples involves varying the verb and the preposition in the infinitival VP, and of course the raised NP: the road is forbidden to play on, this door is prohibited to stand near, etc. This is a tedious enterprise at best, because it's likely to pull up piles of (b)-type examples, not to mention (c)-type examples like:

(1c) Terry is forbidden to play near the well.

I've also tried looking for (a)-type examples with raised direct objects instead of objects of prepositions — things like:

(5a) *fried foods are forbidden to eat ___

(5b) it is forbidden to eat fried foods

Also, so far with no success.

In any case, the (a)-type examples would represent an extension of OSR to a new class of governing predicatives (the forbidden class) — not an entirely unreasonable innovation, but has anyone made it?



  1. Dan Milton said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    Could you give us the entire sentence? The context might help explain.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

    A search of Mark Davies' COCA corpus for the pattern

    forbidden to [v?i] [i*] .


    In the language of the Hungarians, words with noncredible meaning referred to a profound human collectivity that Hungarians were forbidden to think about .

    There were some things that even a Full Historian was forbidden to mess with .

    But in these cases, the object of the preposition has been relativized rather than being tough-moved or passivized or otherwise put into subject position, so I presume that this is not what you are looking for.

    The pattern [prohibited to [v?i] [i*] .] yields nothing.

    The fact that there are no examples of the specified kind in ~360 million words of text — at least, not any sentence-final ones — suggests that such things are pretty rare.

  3. Chris Bogart said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    Jabal Al-Lughat was pondering a similar question in his blog recently:
    Not quite the same syntax, but there's object raising and forbiddenness involved.

  4. Sam Henderson said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    Looking through, I find this construction in a number of texts related to Talmudic law. For example, "Pork is forbidden to eat according to the Torah" and "afterward it is find that the meat is forbidden to eat account the Torah Law".

  5. Cavity Lee said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    The example didn't initially strike me as wrong, though after turning it over in my head a few times it sounded worse. Still, I think I find it acceptable.

    Google shows a few dozen hits for "off-limits to use", mostly of them similar to the (a) sentences above.

    But perhaps that's not the same thing? I'm pretty sure I would read that "use" as a verb, but it could be a noun ("off-limits to usage"– I don't know, that looks much worse to me, but it's not the same construction).

  6. mgh said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    Interesting question. Is <a href=this example similar to 1a (and, if not, why not)?

    my friend has been a boats men for 3 years now becasue the recruiter didnt tell him if the school is full "youll get to scrub, bust rust, chip paint, paint, clean the heads, and other bullcrap on ship while you wait your turn until your school is open to go to

  7. Chas Belov said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    I was going down a similar path to Sam Henderson, although coming at it from a different direction.

    From (5a) *fried foods are forbidden to eat ___
    Fried foods are not kosher. (not necessarily true–it depends on what has been fried–but same meaning)
    Fried foods are forbidden to be eaten. (substitute with same meaning)
    Fried foods are forbidden to eat. (substitute direct for passive)

    I thought of the Yiddish English construction This I don't need. Also, I need this like I need a hole in the head. My Cantonese tutorials refer to this structure as "topic and comment," a feature both of Cantonese and of Yiddish English.

    The well is forbidden to play near
    also sounds like topic and comment.

  8. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

    To me 5a is perfectly grammatical, but my native ("les produits frits sont interdits à la consommation") is probably interfering.

  9. S Onosson said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    I find both 1a and 5a to be acceptable, but not 4a. I could also replace "forbidden" with "not ok" and maintain grammaticality.

  10. Andrew Garrett said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    You've probably noticed the elliptical example that appears near the top of a google search on "forbidden to play near": "The forbidden river so close to home, forbidden to play near and forbidden to roam." I wonder if it's relevant that this adjective is just fine as a simple predicate: "that well / river / water source is forbidden"; similarly, "that locked room is taboo". That is, perhaps, we could think of Morrison's example as containing a predicate adjective "forbidden" followed by an infinitival purpose phrase "to play near".

  11. Dave said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    "The well is forbidden to play near" struck me as strange too. Partly it's that, in contrast to words like "hard" and "easy", "forbidden" is as much a passive participle as an adjective. The well isn't being forbidden to do anything. The children are forbidden to play near the well.

    But the stranger thing about the sentence is that "near" isn't generally used to end a sentence like that. "The well is dangerous to play near" isn't a usual sentence either. "The well is dangerous to play near to" sounds more like what someone would say. The adjective "close" follows the same pattern, but–

    On the other hand, "I feel thrilled whenever you're near" and "Your answer didn't even come close" are perfectly ordinary sentences. I'm not sure what the distinction is but sometimes you can and sometimes you can't.

  12. Marta said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    From the paperback edition, page 259, via AmazonOnlineReader:

    Very few of the interior details did he remember because he was three years old when his family moved into town. But he did remember that the cooking was done behind the house, the well was forbidden to play near, and that women died there: his mother, grandmother, an aunt and an older sister before he was born.

    Unpacking the conjunction to get

    But he did remember that the well was forbidden to play near,

    with the phrase embedded, it’s still not fully grammatical for me. But it’s better than it was standing alone. And in the context of the two sentences together, it’s a whole lot better. Maybe because rhetorically, it’s just fabulous:

    … that
    the cooking was done behind the house
    (longish phrase, fairly innocuous memory)

    the well was forbidden to play near
    (same syllable count, danger looms)

    and that
    women died there
    (quick, SAY WHAT?!?)

    At this point, I couldn’t care less how odd that phrase seemed, Morrison’s got me. (Then she throws me a little off balance again with "an older sister before he was born" but let’s leave that aside.) So call it poetic license, but given the context I don’t think we’ll see that construction as a matrix clause gaining currency any time soon.

  13. S Onosson said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    @ Dave:

    I find "dangerous to play near to" far less acceptable than "dangerous to play near".

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    Dave: My ear hears "near" in that context as a preposition.

    The construction feels archaic, but to understand it we need only invent a related definition for "forbidden", akin to verbing a noun. I didn't have any trouble extracting the intended meaning, and I doubt anyone else reading did.

  15. Dave said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    I didn't have trouble understanding the meaning; the wording just seemed forced to me. But now that I can read the whole thing in context, Marta's right, it flows a lot better. I replaced the phrase with "it was forbidden to play near the well" and it killed the whole sentence.

  16. Rick S said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    (I hope I've got my terms right here.) To me, the following parallel construction illustrates why (1a) is awkward in isolation:

    (6) Alex is forbidden to talk to.

    Until you get to the end of the sentence, Alex could be either the topic or the patient (by OSR), and there's no semantic clue which he is (as there might be with "the well is forbidden"). But Alex-as-subject/topic is by far the more common construction, and I doubt whether anyone would actually consider the alternative a possibility until the surprising "premature" end forces reanalysis. It's annoying!

    Also, compare:

    (7) The well is not permitted to fill up.

    Does this mean (7a) The well is not allowed to become full or (7b) It is not permitted to fill up the well? If OSR is grammatical here, both meanings are viable, but I'd be surprised if anybody (other than a linguist, maybe) even noticed the ambiguity. The well is clearly the topic.

    And yet, the passage Marta quoted isn't at all hard to parse, probably because the coordination sets up an expectation of a passive construction so that "the well" is taken as patient right away. So kudos to Morrison for getting away with it.

  17. Ethan Merritt said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

    The original sentence (1a) sounds fine to my ears. I suggest the following as similar constructs that again sound fine to me, but perhaps your mileage varies.

    (8) If you visit Europe, the following places are recommended to visit.

    "places are recommended to visit" generates a thousand or so Google hits, though not all are examples of this construction. Many are questions:

    (8a) What places are recommended to visit?

  18. Michael Roberts said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 12:27 am

    Wow, this has been an eye-opener. 5a is fine for me, but 1a seemed really strange until I realized that growing up, we would not have used the word "forbidden" (East Central Indiana, 70's — just so we're on the same page.)

    If I substitute, say, "off-limits": "That well is off-limits to play near" and think it in the right accent, it sounds fine.

    It's not easy to Google this, but here's one: "This Lake is forbidden to go near sir." It appears here.

    After many pages of scanning "forbidden to go near," I am nearly suicidal over the human condition. This is not something to be done late at night.

RSS feed for comments on this post