October 21, 2003

Grammaticality, anaphora, and all that

Can a sentence be ungrammatical in isolation, but grammatical in context? In an exchange of e-mail with me, Louis Menand suggests that this is the case for the now-famous example Toni Morrison's genius enables her to... (see earlier posts by Geoff Pullum and by me on this topic), and for examples I extracted from his book The Metaphysical Club. Trying to make sense of this proposal leads to some interesting observations about grammaticality and anaphora.

As background, consider a blast from the past, Jerry Morgan's example Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax. In isolation, this is certainly a puzzler. But in a context in which Ex-Lax can be understood as Spiro's conjectured answer to some question, there's no problem. Isn't this a case of a sentence that's ungrammatical in isolation, but grammatical in context?

Not really. It's certainly true that Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax is ungrammatical on an interpretation in which Ex-Lax is the direct object of the verb word conjectures; the verb CONJECTURE requires clausal, not simple NP, direct objects. But Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax is fine on the interpretation 'Spiro conjectures that the answer to some question is: Ex-Lax'. The problem is that there are (at least) two expressions Spiro conjectures Ex-Lax.

Linguistic expressions are not just form -- phonological content or marks on paper -- but form paired with meaning; they are signs. Unfortunately, the folk notions of sentence, word, phrase, etc. are purely formal, and even professional linguists often speak in ways that presuppose the folk notions. We say that the word pen, the phrases saw her duck and visiting relatives, and so on are "ambiguous", when, to be precise, we should be saying that there are several distinct words pen, several distinct phrases saw her duck, and so on. Normally, this doesn't get us into trouble. But on occasion it can be seriously misleading.

Now to return to Menand, who takes the position that examples like Einstein's discoveries made him famous are ungrammatical -- on the interpretation in which the pronoun has the possessive as its antecedent. Such examples are acceptable, Menand maintains, if the pronoun has an antecedent somewhere in the preceding context; Menand's own example Emerson's reaction, when Holmes showed him the essay, is choice... is "a solecism" if him is anaphoric to Emerson's, but acceptable if an antecedent for him is provided in the preceding context. And there are in fact several occurrences of Emerson not very far before this sentence.

This is an ingenious proposal -- I'll put aside, for the moment, some problems in rephrasing it in conjecturing-Ex-Lax terms -- and it even makes three empirical predictions: first, that if a possessive is the first mention of some entity, a subsequent pronoun cannot refer to that entity; second, that even if the possessive is not the first mention of the entity, if the most recent previous mention is far back in the text, a subsequent pronoun cannot refer to that entity (we can't expect readers to hold discourse referents in memory indefinitely); and third, that a possessive can't serve as the antecedent for a reflexive pronoun (even if there is a prior mention of the relevant entity, this can't serve as the antecedent for the reflexive, since reflexives require antecedents within their clauses). All three predictions are falsified -- the last one in the first fifty pages of Menand's book, so I'll start with that one.

On page 7 of The Metaphysical Club, we have a reference to the city of Boston, via the noun Boston, and, shortly thereafter:

...in a phrase that became the city's name for itself...

Here, itself refers to Boston, but the antecedent of the reflexive pronoun can't be the earlier occurrence of Boston, which isn't in the same clause as itself, and must be the city , which is; even a very recent occurrence of Boston isn't enough to license a reflexive if they're not clause-mates:

Given the history of Boston, our modern name for it/*itself seems odd.

The other two predictions are harder to test in The Metaphysical Club, since the book has a small cast of central characters who are referred to again and again throughout its pages; there are almost always prior mentions. You wouldn't expect historical writing, or novels for that matter, to be a fertile field for first-mention possessive antecedents. So let's turn to shorter forms -- for instance, Calvin Trillin's columns. A quick search of his essays collected in Too Soon to Tell (1995) nets three examples of first-mention possessive antecedents:

p. 87: ...the most recently transcribed tapes from Richard Nixon's Oval Office reveal him once more as a vindictive, unscrupulous paranoid.

p. 138: When I read that the young Ross Perot's stated reason for wanting a hardship discharge before he had fulfilled his naval obligation...

p. 231: A day or two after the Webers' son--Jeffrey, aged twenty-six--finally moved out of the house, they realized that they had lost the ability to tape.

All three examples are from the very first sentences of their essays; possessives are being used to introduce discourse referents.

And for an example that Menand would have to interpret as action at a considerable distance, there's this sentence on page 46:

Ivana Trump's books represent a departure only in that, because of the publicity machinery that has made her one of the last decade's premier examples of wretched excess, everyone knows she's not going to write them.

The last mention of Ivana Trump was a full page earlier, with significant digressions on other people and institutions in between. I hope that Menand will not want to claim that it is this distant occurrence of Ivana Trump, and not the possessive, that is the antecedent for the pronouns her and she.

In his e-mail to me, Menand describes possessive antecedents as "technically" solecisms, which I interpret as suggesting that only the most fastidious, meticulous, and scrupulous writers and editors would observe the proscription against them. Ordinary writers, ignorant of the rule and concerned only about communicating clearly, might get away with them, common usage might condone them, but those who truly care about grammatical correctness will avoid them; Menand tells me, in fact, that The New Yorker would not allow them. This is false.

In the October 20, 2003 issue of The New Yorker, there are at least two examples of first-mention possessive antecedents (there are also at least five examples of non-first-mention possessive antecedents, but let them pass):

p. 177 (David Denby on Pauline Kael): As late as 1980, I was capable of writing (in New York), about De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," "You can see that he's using film techniques and tricks to..."

p. 198 (Peter Schjeldahl on El Greco at the Met, first sentence): "We can define El Greco's work by saying that what he did well none did better, and that what he did badly none did worse," the Spanish painter and scholar Antonio Palomino wrote in 1724.

I fear that, faced with this evidence, Menand would find reasons to exclude every bit of it: comic writing, even by Calvin Trillin, is not held to the same high standards as serious writing; shifting between main text and quoted text is a special circumstance; The New Yorker can't be held responsible for the form of material it quotes (especially in translation); and, in any case, even the most cautious, including Menand himself, sometimes slip. I am so pessimistic because I've had the experience of confronting exponents of the Possessive Antecedent Proscription with the very remarkable facts that only people who've been taught the "rule" find anything wrong with examples like Einstein's discoveries made him famous and Harry's sister gave him a nice birthday present and that people who inveigh against possessive antecedents routinely use them in their own writing. I would think that these observations would give exponents of the PAP pause, would make them question the "rule" and the presumed authority that stands behind it. But, for the most part, no; they are Blinded by the Rules, to the point where they can no longer judge the grammaticality and effectiveness of expressions without reference to those rules.

But back to linguistics. It turns out to be tricky to translate Menand's previous-mention proposal -- pronouns can't have possessive antecedents but instead must have antecedents earlier in the context -- into a proposal about different interpretations of the same form. Take Einstein's discoveries made him famous. The previous-mention proposal says that him refers to Albert Einstein, but not because the pronoun has the possessive as its antecedent, but because it has some previous expression referring to Einstein as its antecedent. So, let's suppose that there are two interpretations that might be associated with Einstein's discoveries made him famous. One of these associations, in which him refers specifically to Einstein, is disallowed by the PAP; this is an ungrammatical sentence. What's the other, permissible, association?

It has to involve an open interpretation, in which him refers to some unspecified male referent, which the reader/hearer picks out from the context, by deixis, general knowledge, previous mention, or subsequent mention. On this interpretation - for Menand, the only interpretation of the expression -- Albert Einstein is just one of an endless number of possible referents for the pronoun.

This is subtle, but coherent. Unfortunately, not very plausible. It's certainly true that Einstein's discoveries made him famous doesn't require that him refer to Einstein; consider Schaumberg was sent many of Einstein's results and published about them extensively. Einstein's discoveries made him famous. On the other hand, Einstein is a highly salient possible referent of the pronoun, entirely without any context; Einstein is the first person we think of, in fact. This effect is impossible to explain if, as PAP exponents would have it, the pronoun can't refer to Einstein (because, they believe, the expression Einstein's isn't referential and can't be). Ok, now, we're back to the raw power of authority, and I'm getting all pessimistic again.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 21, 2003 06:39 PM