As is well known, the verbs need, require, lack and want, on the one hand, and deserve, justify, merit, warrant..., on the other, can exceptionally take -ING complement clauses with ‘concealed’ passive interpretations whenever the verb of the –ING clause allows passivisation. Such ‘concealed passive’ gerunds (Huddleston & Pullum's terminology) can, in fact, even be followed by agentive by-phrases and/or adverbs, as in Your hair needs cutting by a professional, or This draft needs checking carefully by the editor, all of which seems coherent enough with the claim that they are, indeed, a) passive in meaning (although ‘active’ in form) and b) real verbs (rather than de-verbal ING-nouns), as the presence of carefully in the latter example shows.

Although such subordinate gerunds must allow passivisation and, therefore, be at least two-place, it is clear that they need not be ‘transitive’ in the strict sense of taking direct objects, because dyadic verbs taking prepositional, instead of direct object complements (e.g., look at x), can also receive passive interpretations after need, etc. (cf.The ignition needs looking at). The appropriate descriptive generalisation, then, seems to be that gerunds of ‘active’ (= non-stative) two-place verbs can receive passive interpretations when they complement verbs like need or deserve.

What is rather less clear is whether (and, if so, why) such gerunds must be two-place predicates, as, obviously, many 'active' verbs that allow passivisation are not dyadic, but polyadic (e.g., 'ditransitive'), and others are ‘complex transitive’, but still take bona fide direct objects. Verbs like appoint, call, compare, distinguish, give, make, offer, persuade, send, to name but a few, are either ‘complex transitive’ (cf. appoint x + Predicative, make x + Predicative, make x + do y) or straightforward three-place predicates (cf. x compares y to z, x distinguishes y from z, x gives z y/x gives y to z, x offers z y/x offers y to z, x persuades y to do z, x sends y to z/x sends z y, etc.)

I therefore recently asked in a very large English language forum whether the 'passive gerund' construction was possible with polyadic/multi-predicate gerunds like appointing, comparing, giving, making, offering, persuading, sending, etc. in cases like (1-10) or not and the unanimous answer of all the British and American speakers who replied was 'no', with the possible exception of example (7), which some - to their surprise - found more acceptable than the rest:

(1) John deserves appointing __ Professor (=to be/being appointed ...)

(2) Fauré deserves comparing __ to Prokofiev (= to be/being compared...)

(3) This present deserves giving __ to somebody you really like (= to be/being given...)

(4) Bill deserves giving __ this present (= to be/being given ...)

(5) The children need making __ work harder (= to be/being made to ...)

(6) Tom deserves offering __ tenure (= to be/being offered...)

(7) I need persuading __ to marry again (= to be/being persuaded...)

(8) I need persuading __ of the truth of such a claim (...to be/being persuaded...)

(9) She deserves sending __ an invitation (= to be/being sent...)

(10) She deserves sending __ to prison (= to be/being sent...)

[Of course, the reason why some speakers found example (7) more acceptable than the others probably is that, in (7), the clause to marry again need not be interpreted as the third argument of persuade; it can also be understood as an adjunct of 'purpose', and, if so, persuade remains a dyadic predicate.]

In sum, my guess is that dyadic active gerunds can be constructed as passive complements of need, deserve, etc., but higher-adicity ones cannot.

My question to this community, then, is why? Can anybody here point me to a principled explanation of this restriction?

Thank you in advance.

  • Interestingly, stuff like (1-10) are (in my experience) not uncommon for second-language speakers from my area. (On a completely irrelevant note, I don't think Fauré 'deserves' being compared to Prokofiev; they are both great in their own ways...) – WavesWashSands Jan 12 '17 at 17:27
  • If you say so, what other evidence should anybody ask for against my claim that Fauré and Prokofiev are comparable (in respects you cannot have the remotest idea about), but, of course, that sentence was just an example. You can replace it with '*X deserves comparing to Y' if that makes you happy. – Sibutlasi Jan 15 '17 at 11:50

This is not a great explanation, and it's conjectural, but here goes.

We know that in the evolution of grammatical systems, new constructions are introduced only gradually, beginning with simpler constructions, then generalized step by step to more complicated constructions. And, more specifically, we know that passive morphology was not at first used with the English progressive, so that in the 19th century, "The house is building" would be used where today, we'd say "The house is being built."

So maybe predicates with more arguments count as more complex than those with fewer, and Mother English simply hasn't gotten around to introducing passive morphology into higher-adic and so more complex constructions.

We should be patient and wait for English morphology to catch up.

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  • The obvious snag with that 'explanation' is that if 'passive gerunds' can take adjuncts and Agentive by-phrases, which are attached to verbs 'higher' than arguments (where 'higher' entails further structure beyond the saturated VP), as they can, then gerunds should also be able to take a second VP-internal argument. If by-phrases/adjuncts were not possible, we could perhaps hypothesise that the VP 'projection' is reduced to one Larsonian 'shell' because certain VP-internal functional heads (= morphology) (which?) are still missing, but, as things are, that approach seems unpromising. – Sibutlasi Jan 14 '17 at 13:31
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    I don't know what a "Larsonian 'shelf'" is. My proposal assumes a theory like McCawley's in which structures more reflective of the sense of expressions have to be fitted into autonomous templates, reflective of traditional surface patterns of expression. If the template doesn't provide for a passive be+en, you just delete it. – Greg Lee Jan 14 '17 at 16:11
  • Sorry, a Larsonian shell (not 'shelf') is a segment of the syntactic 'projection' of a head's arguments that, following standard X-Bar Theory, contains just the head, a complement slot, and a specifier slot. When a head has additional arguments to project (heads with adicity higher than 2), an additional 'shell' is built 'bottom up' through the raising of the verb (noun, adjective) into a new functional head which automatically provides an extra specifier. In Larson's and later use (e.g., Cinque's), adjuncts are also attached to their head in specifier slots provided by such extra 'shells'. – Sibutlasi Jan 15 '17 at 11:57
  • Thanks for the explanation of building new "shells". To what I said about McCawley's theory, I'll add that his "templets" are like phrase structure rules (though he doesn't say that). – Greg Lee Jan 15 '17 at 17:31

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