John wants Jim to write a letter to the mayor

According to Cambridge, the verb "want" can take the pattern of obj+to-infinitive as a complement, so that means "Jim" here is the direct object of the verb.

However, Ron Cowan in The Teacher's Grammar of English says that "Jim" here is not the direct object of the verb but is the subject in the to-clause. This is because the answer to the question of "What does John want?" is "For Jim to write a letter to the mayor" not merely "Jim". Another test that supports this conclusion is that a passivization can only occur in the complement clause but not in the main clause.

1.John wants Jim to write a letter to the mayorOK

2.John wants [a letter to be written to the mayor (by Jim).]OK

3.*[Jim is wanted (by John)] to write a letter to the mayor.not OK

So my question, what is really the direct object of the verb "want"?

  • 1
    This was the subject of a famous and major debate in linguistics between Noamh Chomsky and Paul Postal. There's lost of evidence for both views ... Apr 12, 2017 at 15:27
  • 1
    @Araucaria Really, I didn't know that. Is there any article on internet that's worth reading? Apr 12, 2017 at 15:31
  • 1
    Not that I know of. I might have a look tonight and let you know :) Apr 12, 2017 at 15:33
  • @Araucaria I would really appreciate your effort :) Apr 12, 2017 at 15:34
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    Ron Cowan is wrong. "Jim" is the understood (semantic) subject of the subordinate clause, but the syntactic object of the matrix clause. See my answer for more info. If you want more info about catenatives, let me know.
    – BillJ
    Apr 12, 2017 at 18:30

3 Answers 3


John wants Jim to write a letter to the mayor.

This is a catenative construction in which "Jim" is direct object of "want" (and the 'understood' subject of the subordinate "write" clause". The catenative complement of "want" is "to write a letter to the mayor", not "Jim to write a letter to the mayor", for the latter is not a constituent, but a sequence of direct object + complement.

The fact that we can’t passivise is a lexical property of "want": there are a fair number of exceptions to passivisation (cf. "John would like them to help him", but not *"Them to help him would be liked by John"!)

"Jim" is called a raised object: the verb that "Jim" relates to syntactically is higher in the constituent structure than the one it relates to semantically.

  • I'm not familiar with the term cetenative, in fact, I have a limited access to CGEL. But what I understand here is that "Jim" here is an intervening noun phrase that's syntactically an object of the verb want, and is raised as the subject in the to-clause. Is that right? Apr 12, 2017 at 21:24
  • I have an access to the A Student's Introduction book. But it seems like H&P tried to make it simple and it's unclear for me. Apr 12, 2017 at 21:28
  • @user178049 Not quite: The intervening NP "Jim" is the syntactic object of "want", and the semantic (understood) subject of the "to write" clause. But the 'raising' involves "Jim"; it is him that is raised to object, not to subject. The 'raising' occurs because the verb that "Jim" relates to syntactically ("want") is higher in the constituent structure than the one it relates to semantically (write). The topic is widely discussed in CGEL Ch14 and in SIEG Ch 13. Once you grasp the principles involved, you'll find that it's the only analysis of examples like the OP's that makes any sense.
    – BillJ
    Apr 13, 2017 at 6:43

If you think about it, it's clear what John actually wants is

Jim [write] a letter to the mayor

After "John wants...", we need to express it as a noun phrase, which means that [write] must be expressed either as a gerund (-ing) or a to-infinitive. It is actually possible to use either with want: we use the to-infinitive form for a single action, and a gerund form for a continuous (progressive) situation. The to-infinitive form is much more widely used.

John wants Jim to write to the mayor
John wants Jane running around afer him

It is also possible to use an implied to be (a silent copula?) to indicate a continuous (progressive) situation:

John wants Jane [to be] at his beck and call

That's looking at things from a semantic viewpoint. When you look at it from the grammar point of view, it seems that Jim, not the write-phrase, is the object. This makes no difference with a name, but if we substitute a pronoun, we have to use an object-pronoun him rather than a subject-pronoun he:

John wants him to write to the mayor

For this reason, when the Cambridge Dictionary complilers got to work on it, they itemised the most common noun clause forms using obj to represent the word in this position, because they have to describe it in a way that people can choose the correct pronoun form.

[ + obj + to infinitive ] Do you want me to take you to the airport?
[ + obj + past participle ] This package - do you want it sent today?
[ + obj + adj ] Do you want this pie hot?
[ + obj + -ing verb ] I don't want you

So, semantically Jim is the subject of the noun-phrase, which in turn is the object of the want-clause, but grammatically the word Jim is the object of the want-clause. In the same way that physicists have wave-particle duality, linguists have this.

  • Secretaries were often instructed, "Miss Smith, (please) take a letter." I suppose that was because they used dictation as part of the process. The grammar is the same, so this is another example of the same usage.
    – WRX
    Apr 12, 2017 at 15:22
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    @Willow, in your example Miss Smith is a vocative en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocative_case (the comma is the giveaway), and take is an imperative. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperative_mood. That example adapted to the pattern discussed in this question would be "the boss wanted Miss Smith to take a letter"
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 12, 2017 at 15:34
  • Semantically, it seems pretty clear that "Jim" plays the role of subject of the non-finite clause. But the question doesn't seem to be about semantic interpretation; it is about syntax. I don't see a clear syntactic argument in this answer. If "Jim" is syntactically a subject and not an object in this particular construction, why do we use object case and not subject case for the pronoun in a sentence like "John wants him to write a letter to the mayor"?
    – sumelic
    Apr 12, 2017 at 19:42
  • @sumelic Syntactically, "Jim" is the direct object of the matrix clause. "Jim" is also the understood (semantic) subject of the subordinate clause. This is a very basic catenative construction
    – BillJ
    Apr 12, 2017 at 20:49
  • @BillJ: OK, sounds good, but what is the justification for this? Araucaria alluded to controversy about this topic; I can see reasons for avoiding lengthy explanations of viewpoints that you think are wrong, but I'm not comfortable with upvoting your answer without knowing more about the reasons for adopting this analysis and whether it is now generally adopted by mainstream linguists. I am not linguistically trained and I don't want to upvote things that seem to be controversial just because they sound reasonable to me.
    – sumelic
    Apr 12, 2017 at 21:05

It seems that there is currently consensus that in "John wants Jim to write a letter to the mayor" "Jim" is in some way a direct object (not just a subject), but there is not consensus about the exact way in which it is a direct object.

As Bill J mentioned, the phenomenon is called "raising to object" or " subject-to-object raising"; there is a short Glottopedia article about it: http://www.glottopedia.org/index.php/Raising_to_object

Here is something I found online that seems useful: Lingering Challenges to the Raising to Object and Object Control, Jeffrey T. Runner, Syntax 9:2 (2006)

Runner says

There are currently three main approaches to the so-called (subject) raising to object construction illustrated in (1):

  1. Cindy believes Marcia to be a genius.

The COVERT RAISING account assumes that in the surface string ‘Marcia’ is in the embedded clause; at LF [Logical Form] Marcia (or the relevant features associated with Marcia) raises to a main clause position where it is syntactically licensed (by checking case features) (e.g., Lasnik & Saito 1991; Chomsky 1995). This account assumes that the main verb ‘believes’ appears in VP (or vP). The OVERT RAISING account differs from the covert raising account in assuming that the movement to syntactically license the embedded subject is part of the overt syntax (Lasnik & Saito 1991; Koizumi 1993; Runner 1995); thus, this account additionally assumes that the main verb ‘believes’ moves to a position higher than the landing site of ‘Marcia’. This position is usually assumed to be VP- (or vP-) external. The third approach is the LEXICALIST account of the construction—initially proposed by Bresnan (1982)—I will focus here on the Head-driven Phrase Structure version (see, e.g., Pollard & Sag 1994; Sag, Wasow & Bender 2005). This account shares with the overt raising account the assumption that ‘Marcia’ appears in the main clause in the surface string; it differs from both raising accounts, though, by assuming a monostratal syntax, which means that though ‘Marcia’ is the object of ‘believes’ in the phrasal syntax, it is also associated with the syntactic and semantic features of the embedded predicate (‘to be a genius’) by a kind of coindexing called structure-sharing, and not movement.

What all of these accounts have in common, which make them different from the previous “exceptional case-marking” (Chomsky 1981) account—which claims that the embedded subject ‘Marcia’ is never part of the main clause—is that at some level of representation the embedded subject ‘Marcia’ is a kind of direct object in the main clause.(1-2)

I also found a chapter online that seems relevant, "Raising, Control, and Empty Categories," which seems to be from Andrew Carnie's Syntax: A Generative Introduction.

  • I upvoted your answer for the hard work you did. But, to me, if it were only John wants Jim. there wouldn't be any problems with the direct object. Now that John wants Jim to do something that's a horse of a different color, it's common sense. What if it were: John wants that Jim [modal] do something? wouldn't the clause in its entirety be the direct object? Apr 13, 2017 at 7:03
  • @LucianSava: In English, it's very rare for verbs like "want" to take clausal complements like that. In that case, "Jim" would not be the DO. I don't know if the clause would be considered a DO; that seems possible to me, but BillJ says that is not a good analysis: "The idea is that non-finite clauses do not behave like direct objects, and hence are best analysed as catenative complements."
    – sumelic
    Apr 13, 2017 at 11:51

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