Control (linguistics)

Control (linguistics)

In linguistics, a control construction (also called equi-NP deletion) is a clause that contains a main clause (or matrix clause), the predicate of which has two complements — an embedded clause (or subordinate clause) complement and a nominal complement that acts as the semantic argument of the main clause and of the embedded clause. This nominal argument is the controller (or antecedent). Verbs that occur in control structures are control verbs (or equi verbs).

For example, in the English sentence

George tried to escape.

the control predicate is tried, a control verb. Its complements are the subject controller George and the embedded nonfinite clause to escape. George is the semantic agent argument of tried. The verb escape also has an agent argument, but in English this argument does not appear in the embedded clause (i.e. it is covert). Since this is a control structure, the covert argument of escape is the same as the overt argument of tried, which, in this sentence, is George.[1] (In other words, the covert argument is a bound variable.) The only semantic interpretation of this sentence is that the person trying and the person escaping are the same — both are George. An interpretation where George is trying and a different person is escaping is impossible.

One way to represent this is to use a bound variable in the embedded clause that is coreferential with the controller. This coreference can be show with co-indexation:

[ Georgei tried [ Xi to escape EMBEDDED] MATRIX]

Here the bound variable (the covert subject of the embedded) is represented as X. It is also coindexed with the controller George (the subject of the main clause) with a subscript i indicating that they both point to the same referent. In other words, necessarily X = George. Semantically, the meaning of this sentence is George tried (George) to escape. The coindexing also shows that X cannot point to a different referent. It is impossible in this control sentence that X = Baron, for example, which would have the impossible meaning of George tried (Baron) to escape.

In English and many other languages, the embedded clause in a control structure is nonfinite. That is, the embedded clause either has an infinitive verb or a gerund verb. For example:

Georgina expected [ to win the race ]   (infinitive)
Georgina remembered [ winning the race ]   (gerund)

However, other languages have embedded clauses that are finite (i.e. the embedded verb is inflected for tense and agreement).



Argument control

Argument control refers to grammatical principles that allow the semantic identity of a verb's argument to be determined even though this argument is not realized phonologically within the syntactic projection of the verb. The most typical instance of argument control involves the unrealized subject of the non-finite verbal complement of a raising or control verb. The unrealized subject is typically interpreted as coreferential with either the subject or the object of the main verb.

For example, in the following sentence, the control verb tried selects a participial complement calling me yesterday:

  • Bill tried [calling me yesterday].

The subject of calling is not overtly expressed. However, the verb tried requires that its subject and the unrealized subject of its verbal complement be coreferent. In other words, the subject of tried controls the subject of calling: Bill is understood to be the "caller" as well as the "tryer" in this sentence.

In other examples, the identity of the unrealized argument is not determined by the grammatical structure of the sentence. In the following examples, the missing subject of the non-finite verb phrases is interpreted generically, by so-called arbitrary control:

  • [Seeing] is [believing].
  • It is better [to have loved and lost] than [never to have loved at all].

Object vs. subject control

In English and many other languages, control verbs may be classified as either subject control, meaning that it is their (syntactic) subject that is semantically shared, or object control, meaning that it is their (syntactic) object that is. For example, try is subject control (as seen above), while convince is object control: in "She convinced him to do that," him is syntactically only the direct object of convinced, but semantically both the patient of convinced and the agent of to do.

Note that a verb may be subject control in one sentence and object control in another. For example, in "She asked to be left alone," asked is subject control, while in "She asked him to leave her alone," asked is object control.

Partial control

Nonfinite and finite control

  • Hebrew
  • Balkan

Backward control

  • Tsez
  • Malagasy

Copy control

Control vs. raising

Control and raising constructions appear to be superficially similar in the surface forms of sentences, but they are actually quite different.

As with many technical terms, both control verb and raising verb are used somewhat differently in different papers, partly because different linguistic theories may group verbs in somewhat different hierarchies.

Theoretical analyses

Equi-NP deletion

Control Theory in Government and Binding

Syntactic tree

In the Government and binding theory framework the above-mentioned sentence is analysed as follows:

  • He tried [CP PRO to do that]

The existence of PRO ([Spec, IP] in the embedded clause) is required by the Extended Projection Principle, which says that all clauses must have a subject. The main characteristic feature of PRO is that it must be ungoverned (the PRO Theorem). In terms of features it is [+anaphor, +pronominal] (see Binding (linguistics)). That is why such sentences as *I expect [John to meet PRO] are ungrammatical: PRO would be theta-governed by the verb.

The expletive test (using non-referential there or it) helps to distinguish between object-control and other types of verbs:

  • persuade: an object-control verb taking a CP complement
    • I persuaded John [CP PRO to read the book]
    • *I persuaded [there to be a problem]
    • *I persuaded [it to rain]
  • expect: an ECM verb
    • I expected [IP John to read the book]
    • I expected [there to be a problem]

Control as movement


  1. ^ The obligatory coreference is a typical of control constructions. However, see the distinction between exhaustive obligatory control and non-obligatory control and partial control (sections: obligatory vs. non-obligatory control, partial control).

External links


  • Boeckx, Cedric; & Hornstein, Norbert. (2004). Movement under control. Linguistic Inquiry, 35 (3), 431-452.
  • Chomsky, Noam. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Chomsky, Noam. (1986). Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin, and use. New York: Praeger.
  • Chomsky, Noam; & Lasnik, Howard. (1993). The theory of principles and parameters. In J. Jacobs, A. von Stechow, W. Sternefeld, & T. Vennemann (Eds.), Syntax: An international handbook of contemporary research (pp. 506–569). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Hornstein, Norbert. (1999). Movement and control. Linguistic Inquiry, 30 (1), 69-96.
  • Hornstein, Norbert; & Lightfoot, David. (1987). Predication and PRO. Language, 63, 23-52.
  • Huddleston, Rodney; & Pullum, Geoffrey K. (Eds.). (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Landau, Idan. (1999). Elements of control, (Doctoral dissertation, MIT).
  • Landau, Idan. (2003). Movement out of control. Linguistic Inquiry, 34 (3), 471-498.
  • Landau, Idan. (2004). The scale of finiteness and the calculus of control. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 22, 811-877.
  • Landau, Idan. (2006). Severing the distribution of PRO from Case. Syntax, 9 (2), 153-170.
  • Manzini, Maria Rita. (1983). On control and control theory. Linguistic Inquiry, 14, 421-446.
  • Martin, Roger. (1996). A minimalist theory of PRO and control. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut).
  • Petter, Marga. (1998). Getting PRO under control. The Hague: Holland Academic Graphics.
  • Polinsky, Maria; & Potsdam, Eric. (2002). Backward control. Linguistic Inquiry, 33, 224-282.
  • Rosenbaum, Peter. (1967). The grammar of English predicate complement constructions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Rosenbaum, Peter. (1970). A principle governing deletion in English sentential complementation. In R. Jacobs & P. Rosenbaum (Eds.), Readings in English transformational grammar (pp. 20–29). Waltham, MA: Ginn.
  • Williams, Edwin. (1980). Predication. Linguistic Inquiry, 11, 203-238.

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