'Fifty pounds will buy me a pair of horses for my carriage': the history of permissive subjects in English

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This article investigates the history of so-called permissive subjects in English, for example The tent sleeps four: inanimate, non-agentive subjects used with verbs that normally take animate, agentive subjects. Although permissive subjects are assumed in the literature to be innovations, there is little information available on their use and frequency. Using historical corpora, I provide an account of the history of permissive subjects with five verbs – see, buy, seat, sleep and sell. The results show that permissive subjects with see and buy are already found in the sixteenth century, while those with seat and sell occur from the nineteenth century onwards, and those with sleep first occur in the twentieth century. The five types also differ in other respects, with genre and functional motivations playing an important role. Crucially, there is an increase in the overall use of these permissive subjects, which follows the increase in subject-initial clauses and a more marked use of the presubject position as described by Los & Dreschler (2012), supporting their proposal that several subject-creating strategies – passives, middles and permissive subjects – became more frequent in English due to changes in the pragmatic character of the clause-initial position, in turn caused by the loss of verb second.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)719-744
Number of pages26
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number4
Early online date9 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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