Tough movement

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In formal syntax, tough movement refers to sentences in which the syntactic subject of the main verb is logically the object of an embedded non-finite verb. The following sentences illustrate tough movement.

(1) This problem is tough to solve.
(2) Chris is easy to please.

The phenomenon was so named by Rosenbaum (1967) because prototypical example sentences like (1) involve the word tough.

In these sentences, this problem is logically the object of solve, and Chris is logically the object of please. The sentences can therefore be paraphrased as:

(1a) It is tough to solve this problem
(2a) It is easy to please Chris.


(1b) To solve this problem is tough.
(2b) To please Chris is easy.

Adjectives that allow this construction include amusing, annoying, awkward, bad, beautiful, beneficial, boring, comfortable, confusing, convenient, cumbersome, dangerous, delightful, depressing, desirable, difficult, dull, easy, educational, embarrassing, essential, excellent, exhausting, expensive, fashionable, fine, fun, good, great, hard, horrible, ideal, illegal, important, impossible, impressive, instructive, interesting, irritating, loathsome, necessary, nice, odd, painful, pleasant, pleasurable, rare, risky, safe, simple, strange, tedious, terrible, tiresome, tough, tricky, unpleasant, useful, and weird. This construction is also possible with noun phrases like a pleasure, a breeze, or a cinch:

Nureyev is a delight to watch.
It is a delight to watch Nureyev.
To watch Nureyev is a delight.

and with the verb take:

This document will take a long time to process.
It will take a long time to process this document.
To process this document will take a long time.

Similar constructions are possible in Dutch, but with a much more limited range of predicates (van der Auweraa and Noëla 2011):

Dit boek is moeilijk te verkrijgen
this book is difficult to get
"This book is difficult to get."
Het is moeilijk dit boek te verkrijgen
it is difficult this book to get
"It is difficult to get this book."

In early transformational grammar (such as Rosenbaum 1967) , this construction was analyzed as an instance of object-to-subject raising, in which the object is base-generated in the normal position after the embedded verb in the deep structure of sentences like (1-2), just as in (1a-2a), but that it is then moved to the front in the surface structure:

Chrisi is easy [to please ti].

In classical government and binding theory it is no longer assumed that the object is moved directly to the subject position. Rather, Chomsky (1977) proposed that the NP "Chris" is base-generated in the main clause, and a null operator raises within in the embedded clause:

Chrisi is easy [Opi PROj to please ti] (see the tree diagram of the embedded clause below)
Tough movement structure.png

The tough movement construction is similar to but distinct from pretty constructions and adjectives modified by too or enough:

These pictures are pretty to look at.
Lee's mattress is too lumpy to sleep on.

For one, these latter constructions do not allow an alternate form with an unraised object:

*It is pretty to look at these pictures.
*It is too lumpy to sleep on Lee's mattress.

or fronted infinitive:

*To look at these pictures is pretty.
*To sleep on Lee's mattress is too lumpy.


  • van der Auwera, J. & D. Noëla. (2001). Raising: Dutch between English and German. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 23:1-36.
  • Chomsky, N. (1973). Conditions on transformations. In S. Anderson & P. Kiparsky (eds.), A Festschrift for Morris Halle. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Chomsky, N. (1977). On Wh-Movement. In Peter Culicover, Thomas Wasow, and Adrian Akmajian, eds., Formal Syntax. New York: Academic Press, 71-132.
  • Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Flickinger, D. & J. Nerbonne. (1992). Inheritance and complementation: A case study of easy adjectives and related nouns. Computational Linguistics 18(3):269-309.
  • Hicks, G. (2009). Tough-constructions and their derivation. Linguistic Inquiry 40(4):535-566.
  • Lasnik, H. & R. Fiengo (1974). Complement object deletion. Linguistic Inquiry 5:535-571.
  • Mair, C. (1987). Tough-movement in present-day British English: A corpus-based study. Studia Linguistica 41(1):59-71.
  • Rezac, M. (2006). On tough movement. In C. Boeckx (ed.), Minimalist essays (pp. 288-325). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Rosenbaum, P. (1967). The grammar of English predicate complement constructions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.