November 11, 2004

This construction seems that I would never use it.

Here are five of the ways that I use the verb seem, with some short examples (courtesy of Google, like all the examples in this post):

1 It seems that Sentence. It seems that relativism has killed ethics.
2 NounPhrase seems to VerbPhrase. Chaos seems to aid learning.
3 NounPhrase seems like NounPhrase. This seems like a terrific solution.
4 It seems like Sentence. It seems like the whole South is for sale.
5 NounPhrase seems like Sentence[Pro]. He seems like I can trust him.

Other English speakers agree, to the tune of millions of Google hits. Seem like, especially in patterns 4 and 5, is marked as informal for me, but I use it without embarrassment in conversation and informal writing.

However, I've recently seen two generalizations of these patterns that are natural, but definitely outside my comfort zone. One is a syntactic generalization of pattern 5 from seem like to seem that. The other is a subtle semantic shift in the meaning of seem, from something like "to give the impression of being" to something like "to give the impression of believing".

Here are some examples of the first innovation:

I met with a new client who seems that he might be difficult.
Strangely enough, he seems that he is much happier here.
She seems that she can fit the part.

These would be fine for me if that were replaced by like, creating instances of the commonest version of pattern 5, where the pronoun in the complement of seem like is the subject of its sentence:

She seems like she would be a great person to meet and know.
These posts seem like they are from another planet.
Bush seems like he's stating the facts, and Kerry seems like he's attacking the president.

The cases like the one in the original example ("he seems like I can trust him", where the pronoun is in another position in the complement sentence) are also possible though less common:

She seems like I would hate her in real life.
He seems like I've seen him before.

These seem fine to me, though informal in the way that seems like generally is. However, they are definitely rarer. Thus "she seems like she" get 7,370 Google hits, while "she seems like I|you|he|we|they" gets only 171 -- and so on:

  same pronoun different pronoun
she seems like __
he seems like __
they seem like __

I haven't found any examples of the NounPhrase seems that Sentence[Pro] pattern where the pronoun is not in subject position, but that may only be because of compounding rarities.

In some examples of seem like, the expected pronoun connected to the subject of seem is missing:

My husband and myself meet with a lawyer this past Monday. He seems like I really have a case and should not have any problem.
But she did'nt, just kept on looking distracted and smiling, she told me she loves that priest. She seems like they have a friggin "connection". I don't care.

There seems also to be a shift of meaning here, with "(s)he seems like" apparently being used to mean "(s)he seems to think that" or "(s)he seems to say that", or perhaps "(s)he acts as if".

The same sort of shift often seems to have occurred even when the expected pronoun is present:

... he seems like i'm just a pain to him and i get in the way.
... she seems like I'm stopping her from doing something.
you seem like he doesn't please you.
... why do you seem like he gave you kooties instead of a kiss that you say you liked?

In such cases, seem like appears to mean something along the lines of "act as if" or "give the impression of believing that". Perhaps this is connected to the quotative use of like, so that seem like may be felt to mean "seem to be saying"?

Anyhow, it's not a surprise that so many of the examples of this kind are in confessional writing about relationship problems. Where else do you get so much informal, explicit discussion of "theory of mind" reasoning?

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 11, 2004 08:05 AM