March 30, 2005

Asking and Requesting

Brian has been discussing the fact that 'hope' and 'want' have different grammars. Brian suggests, I think rightly, that this grammatical fact doesn't tell us anything in particular about whether hoping and wanting are different. Hoping and wanting may be different, but you can't tell that from the grammar.

There's a similar case that's been bugging me for a while; the grammatical facts aren't nearly as clear-cut, but the semantic facts are more so, I think. That case is 'asks' and 'requests' (as you've already guessed, if you read the post titles).

Compare these:

(1) The department chair requested me to see her in her office.
(2) The department chair asked me to see her in her office.

(1) sounds, not quite ungrammatical to me, but a bit off. (2) is perfectly fine, though. If we change the infinitive to a that-clause:

(3) The department chair requested that I see her in her office.
(4) The department chair asked that I see her in her office

then both (3) and (4) are definitely OK.

Now, I'm sure as shooting about the underlying semantic facts: Asking and requesting are not fundamentally different types of actions. Requesting may be more formal than asking, but I'm not even sure about that; it may just be that "request" is used in more formal contexts than "ask" is. (I'm not sure whether the standard of formality governing "ask" versus "request" is context-sensitive or subject-sensitive, if you like to think of it that way.)

(I'm also pretty sure that I'm misusing "sure as shooting.")

I'm not sure about the linguistic data, though; is (1) actually funny, or am I being funny myself? An extremely unreliable Google search suggests to me that there's something to it:

"asked" without "frequently asked questions": about 62,400,000 hits AOTW (eliminating "frequently asked questions" cuts down hits by 1/3)
"asked me to": 1,750,000
asked that: 1,490,000

"requested": 33,500,000
"requested me to": 48,400
"requested that": 2,180,000

"Asked" is used about twice as often as "requested," "asked me to" is used about 36 times as often as "requested me to," and "asked that" is actually used less often than "requested that." This seems to me to indicate a fairly serious preference for not using the infinitive after "requested," though cautions about the crudity of such searches apply with even more force than usual (see the "frequently asked questions" thing).

So I am inclined to say that there is a difference between the complements that "ask" and "request" can comfortably take. And I insist that this gives us no evidence of any difference between asking and requesting.

(Another difference is that "request" is a noun and "ask" is not, but I don't think anyone ever tries to make hay of that sort of thing.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 30, 2005 09:40 AM

Shouldn't both 1 and 2 be "The department chair requested/asked to see me in her office"? That is the " to see her in her" seems awkward in both cases.

Posted by: another matt at March 30, 2005 01:44 PM

I meant also to say: it's not the infinitive vs. that-clause that makes for the awkwardness, it's the 'me' before the infinitive and the repetition of 'her'.

Posted by: another matt at March 30, 2005 01:46 PM

"The department chair asked to see me in her office" and "the department chair asked me to see her in her office" (let's call them 5 and 6!) are different, though. 5 sounds most immediately as if I'm to be displayed somewhere and the department chair wants to know how I look in her office, as opposed to in the foyer.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 30, 2005 02:14 PM

Try the second person: "The doctor will see you in room B now" isn't about putting you on display. Or if you're in trouble at school, a teacher would say, "RMS, the principal wants to see you in her office NOW." In both cases "see you in" means "wants you to be in". And in neither case would it sound right to say, "The doctor/principal wants you to see her in room B/her office now". If anything, that makes it sound as if she's the one who wants to be on display: "hey, check me out in my rad office".

Posted by: another matt at March 30, 2005 02:32 PM

But it's not in the second person.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 30, 2005 02:45 PM

If you like you can do it like this:

(1') The DC requested me to stop by her office.
(2') The DC asked me to stop by her office.
(3') The DC requested that I stop by her office.
(4') The DC asked that I stop by her office.

I still find (1') awkward, and definitely not (2'). Repetition of 'her' is an unfortunate side effect of the fact that we only have one word for the third-person singular female accusative and genitive pronouns (I think); originally I had "boss," "him," "his" but I realized my boss is a DC and is a woman.

The reason "asked me to see her" and "asked to see me" are interchangeable here is because "see" here means "meet," and "meet" is symmetric. If I'd used "visit" instead of "meet" you couldn't make the same substitution:
(2'') The DC asked me to visit her in her office
(2''') ??The DC asked to visit me in her office
because "visit" isn't symmetric--the person who doesn't inhabit the office is visiting.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 30, 2005 03:07 PM

But whether 'see' connotes display doesn't here depend on first or second person. Shifting to the second lets us see that.

I gotta go write a lecture to give in an hour, or I'd say the following more carefully: I think you can also see that the shift to second person is legitimate if you consider what 1 and 2 might be doing -- if they're reporting the chair's request which she uttered to me, for example, I don't see how the shift from her second-person statement to my first-person one would require adding the awkward 'me to see her in her' bit.

Posted by: another matt at March 30, 2005 03:07 PM

"The DC asked to see me in her office" (and actually "I'd like to see you in my office") still sound off to me, but whatevs.

Posted by: ben wolfson at March 30, 2005 03:14 PM