Analytic permissives and causatives in present

Analytic permissives and causatives in present-day English
Discussing complement constructions in English, Wierzbicka (1988:3) writes “Grammar is
not semantically arbitrary. On the contrary, grammatical distinctions are motivated (in the
synchronic sense) by semantic distinctions; every grammatical construction is a vehicle of a
certain semantic structure; and this is its raison d’être, and the criterion determining its range
of use.” Hudson, Rosta, Holmes and Gisborne (1996) maintain, however, that this is not the
full story. They argue that, although most syntactic constructions may be semantically
motivated, there is still a residue of exceptions, of instances which require purely syntactic
knowledge on the part of the language learner and user. They focus on pairs of synonyms, or
near-synonyms, that behave differently syntactically. Of these they state “our data are still
relevant to theories of the syntax-semantics interface even if our putative synonyms turn out
to be subtly different in style or even in referential meaning. Our case is that the examples at
least seem to be synonymous, so the onus is on those who think otherwise not only to
demonstrate the differences in meaning but also to show why the syntactic differences follow
from them” (p.440).
One of the pairs of synonyms cited by Hudson et al. is let/allow. This pair are
investigated in this paper, in which I present the results of a usage-based study of six nonfinite complement constructions in present-day English, three permissives, containing the
matrix verb permit as well as allow and let, and three causatives, containing the matrix verbs
cause, force and make. Data for the study were taken from the British National Corpus. 1,000
randomly selected tokens of each of the six matrix verbs were downloaded from the corpus
and the tokens containing non-finite complements were extracted from the six databases. The
number of relevant tokens totalled 1971, ranging from 85 in the case of make to 774 in the
case of let.
I compare and contrast the constructions with bare and to infinitive complements with
respect to the tense, aspect and mood/modality of the matrix verbs and the person and
animacy of their subjects. I also look at the animacy and the (compromised) agentivity of the
complement clause subjects. An attempt will be made to address the question of whether any
semantic differences between the constructions with bare infinitive complements and those
with to infinitive complements may be attributed to a basic semantic difference between the
matrix verbs or between the complementisers.
I will argue that there are, indeed, clear differences in meaning between the
constructions in question, although such differences do not necessarily preclude their
employment in similar contexts. There are differences in meaning both between the matrix
verbs and between the two complement forms. I maintain, however, that the meanings of the
constructions are not simply a product of their components. If this is so, then the task imposed
by Hudson et al. on proponents of semantics-based explanations, for them to demonstrate why
syntactic differences follow from differences in meaning between matrix verbs, and matrix
verbs alone, may prove to be an impossible one.
Hudson, Richard, Andrew Rosta, Jasper Holmes and Nikolas Gisborne (1996). “Synonyms
and Syntax” in Journal of Linguistics 32(1996)/2:439-446
Wierzbicka, Anna (1988). The Semantics of Grammar. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John
Benjamins Publishing Company