Wednesday, July 23, 2008

new ECM verbs

Prescriptivists seem to be troubled by the advent of new and innovative ECM verbs. First, a little background. ECM stands for Extraneous Case Marking, and applies to verbs like "believe" or "expect" which take a CP complement (CP = Complementizer Phrase; in standard prescriptivist grammar essentially any complete clause) but assign accusative case to the subject of that clause. To quote my syntax teacher's example, "Max expects Maria to word letters carefully." In this example we have what is essentially a complete clause as the complement of "expects" (with the exception of the infinitive verb "to word", but that's outside the scope of this post). "Maria" is clearly the subject. Yet if we replace "Maria" with a pronoun, we're going to choose "her", not "she". This means that the NP in subject position of the complement clause is being assigned accusative case. How the heck is this possible? "Expect" is an ECM verb! It can assign case across a CP boundary (something verbs generally aren't supposed to be able to do).

Nowadays, though, it seems that lowly prepositions are taking CP complements (or has this always been the case?). Many of us have heard or uttered something like "I was surprised by them winning the race". Prescriptively, of course, this is "wrong". It should be "I was surprised by their winning the race", where "their winning the race" is a NP versus the CP of "them winning the race". Clearly there's something going on here, though, because plenty of people say things with this structure. My wager would probably be on the analysis of "be surprised by s.t." as a single verb, and then giving that verb ECM marking. Try as I might I can't think of very many good examples of this construction, even though I hear it all the time, so I may post a follow up later.


Alex said...

Do these work?

I watched them eat lunch.
Principal Borglepud caught them necking in the school gym.
Tom Yarzleby is glad his ex-girlfriend moved out after they broke up, but he hated her taking the couch.

linguistlessons said...

That last example is what I'm looking for, but it's ambiguous with "her", since we use that for possessive and objective case. If you switch the genders of the referents so that it's the ex-boyfriend moving out that would be useful. Would you say "...hated him taking the couch" or "...hated his taking the couch"?

q-pheevr said...

Actually, it's exceptional case marking, not extraneous.

The construction exemplified in "I was surprised by them winning the race" is different from classic ECM not just in that the case seems to be being assigned by a preposition, but also in that the embedded clause is participial rather than infinitival. I think you can get ECM with prepositions in something like "I longed for them to win the race"—you have to be really careful about for, because it can be a complementizer as well as a preposition, but you can tell the difference by seeing what happens when you replace the embedded clause with a DP or move it around:

Complementizer for:
I didn't expect [(for) them to win the race].
[For them to win the race] would be unexpected.
I didn't expect (*for) their victory in the race.

Preposition for:
I longed for [them to win the race].
I longed for their victory in the race.
*I longed their victory in the race.

The trouble with trying to treat "be surprised by" as a lexical item is that it behaves like a regular passive construction. Parallel to your example, you can get active versions "Their winning the race surprised me" (which the prescriptivists approve of) and "Them winning the race surprised me" (which is perhaps grammatical for fewer speakers than its passive counterpart is, but which is certainly attested). So I think the thing to look at in figuring out what's going on with "I was surprised by them winning the race" is not ECM, but the behaviour of subjects of participles/gerunds.

linguistlessons said...

I don't know how I managed to type "extraneous" instead of "exceptional", but thanks for the correction. I think you're right in that what we need to looking at is not CP complements but participial and gerundive phrases, but I'm still not sure what explains the accusative case marking. Also, the only syntax I've taken at this point was pre-1985, so I'm unfamiliar with the syntactic workings of gerunds.