August 23, 2004

The Duchess on being what you would seem to be

"I quite agree with you," said the Duchess; "and the moral of that is--‘Be what you woul d seem to be’--or if you'd like it put more simply--‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’"

Alice's immediate response to this (in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which I was browsing today to get material for a grammar exercise) was: "Pray don't trouble yourself to say it any longer than that."

But Alice did not address this question: is the Duchess's sentence — the one in red above — grammatical? After four or five careful attempts to make a judgment on this, I find I still can't decide. It's only forty words, in my native language, which I've been studying intensively for over three decades, and I still don't know.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 23, 2004 01:20 PM