Berent (1983) conducted a study of deaf college students' abilities to interpret the logical subjects of infinitives in English sentences containing infinitive clauses. (The study also assessed these abilities in hearing adult learners of English as a second language.) The study assessed 51 deaf students' abilities to interpret the logical subject of an infinitive in a variety of English sentence types. As noted in the Grammatical Summary section of this module, the interpretation of the logical subject of an infinitive depends on the nature of the main verb that precedes the infinitive clause, including whether or not that verb is active or passive.
In the Berent study, knowledge of logical subjects was assessed using a 15-sentence test in which students read a sentence and an accompanying question and then circled one of two choices to indicate who they thought was the person performing the action expressed by the infinitive. (The complete test appears in the Action Steps section of this module.)
For example, for the test item below, the correct response would be to circle Mary. When the verb tell is active (told), rather than passive (was told), and is followed by an object and an infinitive clause, native users of English know that it is the object (Mary) rather than the subject (John) that is expected to do the action expressed by the infinitive. In this example, Mary would be expected to close the door.
John told Mary to close the door.
Who will close the door?
Results of the study yielded the following order of success on the various sentences, from the most successful to the least successful. The correct target answer is highlighted in each sentence. If there is no highlighted element for a given sentence, that means that the logical subject of the infinitive is interpreted as someone outside the sentence that would be understood, in a given context, as the doer of the action of the infinitive. After each sentence, the percentage of deaf college students who interpreted the sentence correctly is indicated in parentheses. The clustering of the sentences into two groups is explained below.
Bill chose to stay at home. (100%)
John told Mary to close the door. (100%)
Larry told John what to do. (100%)
Linda chose Mary to answer the question. (98%)
George asked Tom to buy a newspaper. (98%)
Jim showed Larry where to go. (96%)
Tom reminded George to do the homework. (88%)
Mary asked to see the teacher. (86%)
Mike was reminded by George to study the lesson. (78%)
Bill promised George to wash the dishes. (65%)
Alice explained what to do. (59%)
Jim was told whom to visit. (57%)
John said to come at 7:30. (49%)
Tom asked Bill what to buy. (25%)
Larry was asked where to sit. (20%)
In the first cluster of sentences above, each sentence was interpreted correctly by at least 86% of the deaf students and, as indicated by the percentages, six of the sentences were interpreted correctly by almost all of the students. In the second cluster of sentences, success ranged from 78% to as low as 20% correct.