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What is the entailment pattern across the next two sentences: Long stories are easy to tell to the children and The children are easy to tell long stories to?

I am studying entailment patterns and I have come across a curious pair of sentences:

(1) Long stories are easy to tell to the children. (2) The children are easy to tell long stories to.

I think these two sentences are truth-conditionally equivalent. In other words, it seems that if the one sentence is true, then the other is necessarily also true. That is my intuition, anyway. Since I am not sure about my assessment, it would be good if someone here could provide some commentary about such cases. Note that this pair of sentences is similar to the following pair:

(3) This sonata is easy to play on that violin. (4) That violin is easy to play this sonata on.

This pair was, I believe, discussed by Chomsky at some point. My intuition is that these two sentences are also truth-conditionally equivalent, although I am again not sure. Note that both pairs of sentences involve the adjective easy, which is of the sort that allows so-called tough-movement.

2 Answers 2

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Tl:dr

Yes, the two sentences convey exactly the same information, packaged in slightly different ways. This is similar to how the three sentences below semantically entail each other:

  • Someone sent Bob a book
  • Bob was sent a book.
  • A book was sent to Bob..

Full answer

It might be easier to see how these sentences relate to each other by investigating some other closely related sentences. The sentence below is grammatical but clunky:

  1. [To tell long stories to the children] is easy.

The reason is that we find such sentences clunky seems to be that it is more difficult for us to process sentences which have clauses as subjects. One solution to this problem that the language makes available to us is the extraposition construction. In this construction we stick a meaningless dummy pronoun it in the subject position and shunt the non-finite clause down to the end of the matrix clause where it is easier to process.:

  1. It is easy [to tell long stories to the children].

Examples (1) and (2) mean exactly the same thing. [Notice that in (2), the subject pronoun is not a referential pronoun. It doesn't refer to the non-finite clause. It is just a meaningless filler for the obligatory subject position.]

We can compare example (2) here with the first of the Original Poster's examples, which uses a tough-movement construction:

  1. Long stories are easy [to tell ___ to the children].

This time, the non-finite clause still appears at the end of the matrix clause, where it would now be analysed as the complement of easy. However, instead of plugging the obligatory subject position with a dummy pronoun, we 'extract' one of the noun phrases (NPs) from the non-finite clause and use this NP to plug the subject position. This leaves a gap in the non-finite clause which is semantically co-indexed with the subject. We could informally represent the example in either of the following ways:

  • Long stories are easy [to tell long stories to the children].

  • Long storiesi are easy [to tell ___i to the children].

The example above means exactly the same as example (2). They reconstruct semantically in the same way. Meaning-wise, the subject long stories in (3) belongs together with the rest of the non-finite clause.

In that particular example, it happens to be the direct object of the verb tell which was 'extracted'. However, we can alternatively extract indirect objects or the objects of prepositions. The latter is what happens in the original Poster's second example:

  1. The children are easy to tell stories to:

We could represent this informally using either of the following:

  • The children are easy [to tell long stories to the children]

  • The childreni are easy [to tell long stories to ___i].

Each of the examples above signifies that whatever quality is indicated by the predicate easy is applicable to whatever is represented by the non-finite clause [for an underspecified teller] to tell long stories to the children. There is no chance, therefore, of their different variants having different meanings. (1)–(4) entail each other.


An over-my-shoulder commentator has said that the easiness involved must surely apply to the denotee of the subject NP. For example, suppose the subject NP is Margery and that Margery is both easy-going, inspiring, and makes it rewarding to do difficult and unpleasant things for but that the action described by the infinitival VP is fiendishly difficult , unpleasant and not at all easy to achieve, then the following would be the sentence opted for:

5. Margery is easy to do extraordinarily difficult and unpleasant things for.

However, the sentence above means exactly the same as:

6. Extraordinarily difficult and unpleasant things are easy to do for Margery.

And this means the same as:

- It is easy to do extraordinarily difficult and unpleasant things for Margery.

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    You managed not to mention Tough-movement, though you did get co-indexing in there.
    – jlawler
    May 30, 2022 at 15:53
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    @jlawler I did, I believe, though only fleetingly ;) "2, which uses a tough-movement construction:" May 30, 2022 at 16:25
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    That does seem to me like a better way of putting it in a theory-independent way (especially in combination with the footnote).
    – TKR
    May 30, 2022 at 23:08
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    I agree with the consensus here, namely that the two sentences in each pair in the question are truth-conditionally equivalent. They shouldn't be, though -- at least not according to Chomsky (1981) and Pollard & Sag (1994). Both sources argue that the subject of tough-adjectives is thematically charged. Chomsky was hence motivated to put forward his OP analysis of tough-movement. May 31, 2022 at 2:20
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    @Araucaria - him Thank you for providing such detailed explanation. The different constructions seem pretty clear to me with the examples you put above. Their truth conditions do seem to be the same as you have demonstrated.
    – Buffoon
    May 31, 2022 at 9:42
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Any entailment would depend on context, and it is not hard to find situations where one is true and the other isn't. For instance:

Long stories are easy to tell to the children, because I just need to prepare a few puppets, and can adlib most of the dialogue. So I can keep them occupied for 30 minutes with hardly any preparation. However the children are NOT easy to tell long stories to, because their cursed parents fill them with sugar before dropping them off, and all they want to do is run around screaming.

UPDATE: I think I need to be clearer on what I'm saying. Given X ("Long stories are easy to tell to the children"), Y ("The children are easy to tell long stories to") is either true or false. The information to decide that is not contained within X and Y. X therefore does not entail Y.

Or, alternatively (to show that Y does not entail X, either):

The children are easy to tell long stories to, because they are an intelligent, curious bunch. However long stories are NOT easy to tell to the children - they are not suited to just reading out loud the way the classic short stories are, so I need to go through and prepare notes for myself in advance.

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    Thank you for giving this insight! This leads me to think more of the existence of context. Maybe it is something related to Pragmatics. I myself am not sure though.
    – Buffoon
    Jun 2, 2022 at 4:36
  • @Buffoon , Darren, That looks good but it won't go through. Consider: "The children are easy to tell long stories to, because I just need to prepare a few puppets, and can adlib most of the dialogue. So I can keep them occupied for 30 minutes with hardly any preparation. However, long stories are NOT easy to tell to the children, because their cursed parents fill them with sugar before dropping them off, and all they want to do is run around screaming" We can change the children and stories around as much as we want, it makes no difference. Jun 2, 2022 at 22:03
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    Geis and Zwicky 1971 introduced the term "invited inference". Semi-entailment has the following definition: A semi-entails B iff for all speakers who believe A, those speakers believe B, and B is synthetic. I.e, B is not logically true, but is possibly false. See this survey for details.
    – jlawler
    Jun 5, 2022 at 18:49
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    When your post uses sentence X and then uses sentence A as evidence that it is true, it could just as easily have used sentence Y and sentence A as evidence to show it is true. The post assumes that it's some property of the subject NP that makes the sentence true or false. Swap sentences X and Y and see if you think that still holds. For me it doesn't. Consider Long stories are easy to tell to the children, because they are a curious intelligent bunch, a cut-and-shut from the last set of examples, which according to that reasoning should be false and a non-sequitur given the evidence. Jun 5, 2022 at 21:14
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    @jlawler. Thank you for the interesting sources. I am reading them with much interest. Jun 6, 2022 at 4:06

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