Begging control

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This headline confused me until I read the story: Julian Chokkattu, "Email App Maker Begs Apple CEO to Get Back on the App Store", Wired 11/22/2019.

I couldn't figure out why an app maker wanted Tim Cook to "get back on the App Store", or indeed what it would even mean for Cook to be "on the App Store". But of course it's the app maker who wants to get back on the App Store, because Apple kicked them off.

This is an example of what syntacticians call control, the problem of assigning subjects to predicates.  The classical examples include things like

I persuaded Kim to leave. (Kim is the one who leaves)
I promised Kim to leave. (I'm the one who leaves)

And beg usually works like persuade, as I verified by checking a random sample of examples from the COCA corpus:

She begged him not to leave Iskren alone.
I […] begged my old friend Gregson to let me have a look round.
[S]he had begged Blayne to somehow get Gwen to invite her to one of her uncle's practices.
Stefan begged Tara to take him back.
[S]he begged probation officials to put Nicole in treatment.
… etc. …

I checked a hundred examples without finding any cases of object control — but all the same, I think that the headline is grammatical in the intended reading, even if the odds are against it.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Rodger C said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 8:42 am

    I would have said "begs Apple CEO to let him back," and yet the headline doesn't seem wrong, only a bit odd.

  2. Scott P. said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    "Petitions" would work here, replacing "beg", if people didn't write at an 8th grade level.

  3. cameron said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 9:48 am

    When I first read the headline I wondered whether Back was the name of the app . . .

  4. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 9:49 am

    I read it the intended way, and the other probably wouldn't have occurred to me if Mark hadn't pointed it out.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 10:41 am

    The headline seems ungrammatical to me.

    Maybe I'm having a strict grammar day, though, because "I promised Kim to leave" looks doubtful at best to me. Anyway, the construction is rare. From COCA, counting only hits that look relevant (e.g., "promised voters to/that", not "promised funding to/that"):

    [promise] NOUN to VERB/ADVERB: 4
    [promise] NOUN that: 58

  6. Greg said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 11:55 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I have the same problem with the grammaticality of "I promised Kim to leave". I'm fine with "I promised Kim *article* *object*" and "I promised (*that*) *action*" where the "that" can be elided in speech, but "I promised Kim *infinitive*" seems odd. I think I would prefer "I promised Kim I would leave".

  7. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, page 1229:

    In [ii] "Liz promised (me) to phone at six" both versions have control by subject, with Liz the one to phone. Yet, no other verbs follow the patterns of help/promise, [iib] being rather marginal, so it would be more usual to use a finite compl here "Liz promised me that she'd phone", cf. "They appointed/*promised him secretary".

    Page 1260
    "Kim’s promise to help me with my tax return"

    Page 1270
    Suei promised Tim [_i to arrange the interviews] (control by matrix subject) but
    *Tim was promised by Suei [_i to arrange them],
    as promise does not passivise, the antecedent for the missing subject is complement of the preposition by, and that is not a syntactically permitted function for a controller.

    Page 1381
    I promised my father – [on Christmas EVE it was] – to write home.

    Page 1527, ellipsis of complement of lexical verbs and adjectives
    A: I can’t come with you.
    B: But you promised _.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 12:43 pm

    From the KJV:
    "..and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers" (Deuteronomy 19:8)
    " he promised him to give him alway a light" (2 Kings 8:19)
    "..and of the sum of the money that Haman had promised to pay to the king's treasuries" (Esther 4:7)

  9. unekdoud said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 4:53 pm

    Of course the headline should really end "to Get App Back on the App Store", but that's one App too many.

  10. Daniel said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 7:12 pm

    Could this not just be "to" in the sense of "in order to"?

  11. JPL said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 7:30 pm

    Just as a start, the headline is not ungrammatical in the intended interpretation, but it is ambiguous wrt possible interpretations. The primary interpretation would be the one where there is a dependency relation between a verbal act intended to influence the action of another person, and the action of that other person; the other, secondary, interpretation would be paraphrasable by, "App maker begs Apple CEO [in order to] get back on the App store", in which the subordinate clause indicates a reason for the action of the (referent of the) subj. NP. If I'm not mistaken, both of these tend to be described as "purpose clauses", and that's why I avoided that term in the previous sentence.

    BTW, @Antonio Banderas, you say that "promise does not passivise", which is true in this context, but there is, e.g., "Tim was promised a job at the firm [by Suei]", which is kind of weird coming from the active version, "Suei promised Tim a job at the firm", I suppose on the pattern of "Don was made president by the mob".

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 7:40 pm

    Greg: I too would prefer "I promised Kim I would leave." The version without "that", which you mention, increases the majority for "promise that". I'd like to claim that I didn't search for it because it was too hard to search for, but actually I didn't think of it.

    Better statistics:

    [promise] PRONOUN to VERB/ADVERB: 59
    [promise] PRONOUN that: 785

    Antonio Banderas: Thanks for the excerpts from the CGEL. But was "Liz promised me to phone at six" [iib] or not [iib]? If it was the former, "rather marginal" sounds good.

    Coby Lubliner: Thanks for the quotation from 2 Kings, which may be helping to maintain the existence of this rare construction. Your other two show a different (and uncontroversial, I think) construction without a direct object for "promise".

  13. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 7:50 pm

    Where you wrote "I checked a hundred examples without finding any cases of object control," I think you might've meant subject control? Unless I've got my wires crossed, all the examples you list here look like object control.

    Anyhow, I also find the headline grammatical and comprehensible w.r.t. the intended meaning. I wonder if it makes more sense to analyze it as having the structure in (i), as opposed to (ii).

    (i) [S [subject] [VP [mono/ambi-transitive verb][object]] [purpose clause]]
    (ii) [S [subject] [VP [di-transitive verb][object][complement clause]]]

    That is, its structure is more like that of "App maker sings (a song) to get back on the App Store" than "I promised Kim to leave."

  14. Stephan Hurtubise said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 9:05 pm

    I see JPL beat me to it! Anyway, I think a 'purpose clause' analysis becomes even more plausible when you consider that you can 're-insert' an object-controlled clause and produce an acceptable, if redundant, sentence:

    "App maker begs Apple CEO to let him back on the App Store, to get back on the App Store."

  15. RP said,

    November 27, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    That ambiguity is created by the US convention of putting headlines in Title Case. In the UK, the majority of media outlets put headlines in Sentence case, so you would easily be able to distinguish whether Back was an app or not.

  16. KeithB said,

    November 27, 2019 @ 9:46 am

    I thought for sure there would be something about the China talks being in the "last throes"

  17. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 27, 2019 @ 10:50 am

    "What would you like the power to do?"
    — Bank of America admen

  18. John Lawler said,

    November 27, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    To assist those interested in the Equi provenances here, I've posted online the 2529 example sentences containing promise in the 2nd edition of the OED. It's already formatted as an HTML file, so it can be searched easily for patterns with regular expressions. To clarify, add data.

  19. Robot Therapist said,

    November 28, 2019 @ 5:00 am

    I couldn't say "I promised Kim to leave" meaning "…that I would leave"

  20. KevinM said,

    November 28, 2019 @ 10:01 am

    I love Kim, but she is promised to another.

  21. JV said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 12:03 am

    Grammatical but the sense is wrong to the average reader.
    "The conductor begs Emma to get back on the train." Who would read this parallel sentence as meaning that it is the conductor who wants to get back on?

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    December 1, 2019 @ 1:45 pm

    Indeed, that's the real issue. The grammar of both readings is the same, the only difference is the implied subject of the infinitive.

    And I think surely 'promise [someone] [INFINITIVE]' is archaic and should not be used today, except as a mistake; 'promise' no longer works like 'beg'. The quote from the Bible is hardly relevant as the KJV is full of archaic grammar. Rather than

    ? I promise you to stay away.

    we now say

    + I promise you (that) I'll stay away.

    k_over_hbarc at

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