November 11, 2004

Looks like a reference problem

Reading Mark's post about seems that/like reminds me of two similar examples. Both are with looks instead of seems, meaning that *looks that isn't possible (though I won't bother with a Google search right now).

The first was one I overheard in Louisville, KY a few years ago. My wife's aunt was telling us a story about how her son came home from school one day, looking beaten up. So his mom says to him:

Somebody looks like they beat the hell out of you!

At first this sounded fine to me, but then I wondered why. The problem is with the reference of somebody.

I don't think that somebody co-refers with you. Co-reference in this case requires that the latter pronoun be 3rd person, and even then it sounds better, at least to me, if the pronoun is in subject position (compare somebody looks like he was beaten up (by some bullies) with ?somebody looks like some bullies beat him up). You is 2nd person, and in object position in the example quoted above.

So we have to conclude that somebody co-refers not with you but with they, which is consistent with the fully grammatical paraphrase without raising:

It looks like somebody beat the hell out of you!

There are several questions raised by this analysis, however.

  1. Somebody is singular, they is plural?
    This presupposes, I think erroneously, that they can't be singular (at least for purposes of gender neutrality). My wife's aunt's son is no wuss, but I think his mom knows that there are some big bad bullies out there with no need for a gang.

  2. Somebody looks like and "sensory range"?
    The somebody in somebody looks like leads one to believe that its referent is within the sensory range of the speaker - the speaker sees, hears, or otherwise senses the referent's presence. But the referent of they is not present - except in the form of bruises on the speaker's addressee, which I suppose may count as enough.

  3. More than one pronoun = ungrammaticality
    It seems to be the case that a second pronoun is simply not possible in the embedded clause of this construction, even if the intended co-reference of somebody is with a 3rd person singular pronoun (regardless of grammatical role): *somebody looks like he was beaten up by her, *somebody looks like she beat him up. But maybe the fact that the second pronoun is 2nd person you in the original quoted example alleviates this problem (I'm not yet willing to say it's not grammatical).

I suppose it's possible that my wife's aunt meant to say something like the following impeccably grammatical sentence, where both embedded pronouns co-refer with somebody, but maybe slipped up sometime around the application of downstairs passivization:

Somebody looks like they had the hell beaten out of them!

Update: John Cowan disagrees somewhat with my analysis; I reproduce his message to me in full here:

I think there is indeed a problem of reference, but what weirds the sentence is not so much the reference of "somebody" (which I do think is co-referential with "you"), but the fact that this represents a particular kind of language game in which "somebody", normally -specific, is being used as +specific. An example from my own home a few days ago:

Somebody better wash the dishes before she goes to bed!

Now examining this form, it seems a bit cleaned-up: a more natural form would probably have been (if I weren't a lingweenie):

Somebody better wash the dishes before they go to bed!

IOW, this +specific use of "somebody" normally carries the "they" singular pronoun that is preferred in its -specific use, as in:

Somebody has left their pager in the men's room.

So I suspect that your aunt-in-law's underlying form was:

Somebodyi looks like theyj beat the hell out of themi.

with this anomalous use of somebody, but that this form got censored because of its semantic peculiarity, causing the "themi" to be replaced by "youi" at the last minute. If so, then "theyj" is of course the vague They who do all bad things.

The other example is on the highly recommended website. Homestar Runner has just presented Marzipan with a veggieburger, decorated so that it "has a little face". Homestar says:

The olives, um, kinda look like he has eyes.

This also sounds eerily fine, although kinda make it look like would be a definite improvement. (Note that this example kinda looks like the he seems like I really have a case examples Mark cites.)

One more kinda related example, with a cute little co-reference problem:

And now, the man whose back I walked on and nearly killed ...

I heard Jim Packard say this while introducing Michael Feldman at the beginning of Michael Feldman's Whad'ya Know?. Obviously, the extracted object of killed is the man, but his back keeps getting in the way.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at November 11, 2004 02:44 PM