November 16, 2004

I'm starting to get like "this is really interesting"

Neal Whitman at Literal Minded posted some interesting suggestions about possible future (?) developments in the seems, like, go, all saga (previous links here, here, here, here):

She's becoming like, "What's taking them so long?"
Whenever you get mad, you get like, "I don't care what anyone thinks!"
"I really have a case," is what he seems like.
"Get outta here!" That's what he was like.
"I don't care what anybody thinks," is what you get like.

I added the question mark because I suspect that many if not all of these are already out there, though I don't have time for a thorough search.

[Update: a quick internet search turned up these examples of quotative get:

He tricks me that way. I always fall for it too... I'm starting to get like 'yeah right' but I'm also too scared to say yeah right cos what if he did actually get the bad mark he's hinting at? O_O how am i ever to know?
savvy now i'm starting to get like $%&? ! there's no more! ⟨wich actually means i'm liking it⟩
But, she got like all, "I'm all grown up now... Hehe, I'm gonna go wear skin colored clothing."
Okay, so I thought he was kidding around, becasue, to me, that sounds like kidding around, and then he got all like 'why would i be kidding?'
K, before you get all like "how come Sarah never updates anymore?" Its because Sarah's internet is never on anymore. But it is on now.

I suspect that at least some of these uses are documented in the bibliography that Arnold Zwicky cited]

And John Lawler emailed a long meditation on the subject, full of fascinating ideas that I haven't had time to think through:

Today's post on seem like, go, all reminded me that I'd been meaning to write you about your earlier post on seems like/that. You point out two aberrant constructions with seem; one you call

'a syntactic generalization of Pattern 5
[NounPhrase seems like Sentence[Pro]
e.g, He seems like I can trust him]
from seem like to seem that'.

That may be a good description (who knows, even an explanation), but there's more than one iron in the fire.

You also note that all examples of this construction have the coreferential pronoun in subject position; i.e, exactly where it would be if this were an infinitive complement instead of a that complement. As we all know, with an infinitive complement, seem obligatorily A-Raises, producing an unexceptionable sentence like

(1) Strangely enough, he seems to be much happier here.

instead of the quite exceptionable

(2) ?Strangely enough, he seems that he is much happier here.

which apparently means exactly the same thing as (1). So one can view this equally well as a switch from an infinitive to a that complement. Why would one do this? Well, two of the sentences you adduce from Google suggest a reason:

(3) ?I met with a new client who seems that he might be difficult.

(4) ?She seems that she can fit the part.

Unlike (2), these complements contain modals and therefore can't be infinitives. But it seems like they want to A-Raise anyway, thus producing the usual invited inference of Raising that the conclusion stated in the complement of seem is generated by observation of the subject, instead of the impersonal conclusion that would be produced by Extraposing them (which is supposed to be obligatory with that complements of seem):

(5) I met with a new client who it seems (*that) might be difficult.

(6) It seems (that) she can fit the part.

What I think we have here, in short, is the equivalent of Raising from a that complement, but with a resumptive pronoun in subject position. This produces a slightly bad sentence, but it's only a venial sin compared to the mess real copy+delete Raising would leave:

(7) *I met with a new client who seems that might be difficult.

(8) *She seems that can fit the part.

This may be affected by the seem like construction, as you suggest – indeed, the seem like construction itself may be an earlier case of the same thing – but it seems to me to be a nifty workaround to a bug in English syntax: extending a rule to another context, with a patch to improve its efficiency. Not unlike what we do when we see a violation of a Ross constraint looming at the end of the sentence, like:

(9) ?That's the book that Bill married the woman who illustrated it.

(10) *That's the book that Bill married the woman who illustrated.

Indeed, this may not be a novel construction at all. The OED gives, for instance, this bilingual citation of seem; note that the Latin translates as 'they are seen to be able':

1627 Hakewill Apol. i. ii. 17
Possunt, quia posse videntur. They can, because they seeme they can.

The other construction you characterized as 'a subtle semantic shift in the meaning of seem [like], from something like "to give the impression of being" to something like "to give the impression of believing". Examples:

(11) ... she seems like I'm stopping her from doing something.

(12) you seem like he doesn't please you.

Seem, it seems, has always had a sense equivalent to think or believe. This is the sense that appeared with clitic dative subject in meseems:

1876 Morris Sigurd iii. 182
But meseems that the earth is lovely and each day springeth anew.

which was effectively synonymous (and constructionally equivalent) to methinks:

1831 Lamb Elia Ser. ii. Shade of Elliston,
Methinks I hear the old boatman,..with raucid voice, bawling 'Sculls'.

In 20th-Century English, of course, think and seem have long gone their separate syntactic ways, think as an ordinary experiencer-subject transitive active verb, and seem as a rather odd A-Raising or Extraposing intransitive stative, with experiencer expressed, if at all, in a to phrase.

This construction seems to me to be a shift from ordinary modern seem back to the seem of meseems, except it's not impersonal third person; instead it seems to make use of the same invited inference that A-Raised seem subjects have – i.e, in (11) the speaker is inferring her beliefs from observing her, and in (12) your beliefs from observing you. Using like, it seems, makes it a whole new construction, with affordances and prohibitions not yet carved in stone.

God, syntax is fun!

Apologies to those of you to whom phrases like " A-Raised seem" are somewhat opaque. As a phonetician rather than a syntactician myself, I sympathize. If I can find a few minutes at some point over the next few days, I'll try to explain; or maybe someone more qualified than I am will step in. I hope at least that you see from the examples that something interesting (and yes, fun!) is going on here; and jargon aside, syntacticians do have quite a bit of insight to offer about the nature and relationships of the patterns involved.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 16, 2004 09:40 AM