January 20, 2006

Guest post: Getting ourselves in trouble

In response to Geoff Pullum's post "People that would do ourselves harm", Chris Culy submitted the following:

Darrell Waltrip, successful NASCAR driver and sports commentator, had this to say about talking and getting into trouble:

"I had a reporter one time tell me, 'Waltrip, you're a great interview, but you talk too much,"' Waltrip said. "He told me I talked and talked and talked, and eventually I'd say something that would get myself in trouble.

"I was always like that. Talk, talk, talk, talk."

So, what did you think when you read that? Did you choke on your morning double mocha soyaccino and sputter, as Geoff Pullum might, "That's totally ungrammatical, in all dialects." Or did you calmly sit back and think to yourself, as Ricky Rudd fan DDniteOwl21 does, "Ignore him/them. Don't even risk saying something back that might get yourself in trouble. It's just NOT worth it."?

Unlike Geoff Pullum and more like Mark Liberman, I wasn't shocked by the reflexive pronoun in President Bush's statement (cited on Reuters here):
And so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm.

The issue, as Geoff points out, is that

Reflexive pronouns like ourselves must (to put it roughly -- there are some codicils) have an antecedent earlier in the same clause, agreeing with it in person, number, and gender.

The codicils include the idea that stressed reflexive pronouns are not subject to this constraint, and there are certain other constructions that allow a reflexive pronoun without a same-clause antecedent. For example, Geoff pointed out to me in e-mail, that "between ourselves" in the sense of "confidentially" is one such construction. (More on that below.) And of course, other languages (e.g. Ewe, Japanese, Latin, and many more) do not necessarily have the same-clause antecedent constraint on particular pronouns. Those kinds of pronouns lacking the same-clause antecedent constraint have been referred to variously as "long distance reflexives," "non-clause bound reflexives," and "logophoric pronouns" — but that's another topic.

But English does have (some form of) the same-clause antecedent condition on its reflexives, so Bush's statement, as well as those by Waltrip and DDniteowl21, which are syntactically parallel to Bush's, I take to be one of those mysterious aspects of English that Geoff likes.

So, just for my own curiosity I tried to find more examples of unstressed ourselves used without a clausal antecedent. I did two kinds of searches. One type of search was to use Google to look for examples parallel to Bush's: ourselves as the direct object of a subject relative. The other type of search was to look for ourselves in a few (about two dozen) 18th-early 20th century works, fiction and non-fiction, that I happened to have scattered across my hard drive. Obviously, neither search was exhaustive of its kind. The 30 examples I found via Google are here, for brevity(?!) of this posting.

Here are some observations about the Google searches (examples parallel to Bush's utterance):

  • Looking for things that are/seem ungrammatical can lead to sites using fake English to fool search engines
    e.g. look for: "that did ourselves" -bush
  • The examples are rare, but they do exist, and they are probably (though I haven't tried to check) no rarer than some examples from syntax articles. Also, I didn't look for any other pronoun or any other position or function of the pronoun.
  • Many of the examples are from religious-themed pages.
  • Many, though not all, of the examples have another first person plural pronoun in the same sentence.
  • "X that GET ourselves Y" is easy to find, and seems among the most natural to me.
  • Past tense of the main verb of the relative clause is rare (though less so with GET).
  • I didn't find any examples with the perfect (present or past) in the relative clause.
  • I excluded examples where the relative clause modifies a noun that is predicated on a first person e.g. "One aspect of Human Selection says that we are a species that can reinvent ourselves and what I am saying is that we have done so before and it's a consequence of learning and surviving the lessons." (Source: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Fountain_Society/message/3448")

The four examples I found from the historical works are very different, and none are of the object in a relative clause type. The numbers are too small to make any general observations. The examples are at the end of the post.

While all these people could have forgotten what the subject of the clause was, as Geoff suggested Bush did, it seems unlikely to me. Not that I have an explanation of what is going on, mind you. That would need more, and more systematic, data. And while I'm willing to admit that they could all be errors, it's worth taking another look.

Finally, a side benefit to me of looking for these examples was finding other things that piqued my curiosity. For example, "between us" meaning "confidentially" is pretty common in a cursory look on Google, but very uncommon in the few historical sources I looked at. Another example is that the ratio of among + pronoun to amongst + pronoun is significantly lower when the pronoun is a reflexive (ourselves, yourselves, themselves) than when it is a non-reflexive (us, you, them), and the ratios vary widely across persons. (Counts were the extremely crude measure of Google hits.) I didn't expect this disparity, given the synonymy of among and amongstamongst doesn't even rate a separate entry in the collegiate dictionary I looked in.

So, whether or not Bush's utterance is ungrammatical in some or all dialects, taking it as a mystery to be explored leads to some (potentially) interesting results.

Here are the four examples from historical sources of unstressed ourselves without a same-clause antecedent. None of them are in the above pattern discussed above (object of a verb in a subject relative clause). All the books were from Project Gutenberg. Emphasis on ourselves added throughout.

Source: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

In this distress the mate of our vessel laid hold of the boat, and with the help of the rest of the men got her slung over the ship's side; and getting all into her, let go, and committed ourselves, being eleven in number, to God's mercy and the wild sea; for though the storm was abated considerably, yet the sea ran dreadfully high upon the shore, and might be well called DEN WILD ZEE, as the Dutch call the sea in a storm.

Source: Emma by Jane Austen

"Oh!" she cried in evident embarrassment, "it all meant nothing; a mere joke among ourselves."

Source: Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography (2 examples)

It was argued by Wilson, Robert R. Livingston, E. Rutledge, Dickinson and others ... [a long list of propositions, all starting with "that"] ... That it was prudent to fix among ourselves the terms on which we should form alliance, before we declared we would form one at all events: And that if these were agreed on, & our Declaration of Independance ready by the time our Ambassador should be prepared to sail, it would be as well as to go into that Declaration at this day.
... and the amendment against the reeligibility of the President was not proposed by that body. My fears of that feature were founded on the importance of the office, on the fierce contentions it might excite among ourselves, if continuable for life, and the dangers of interference either with money or arms, by foreign nations, to whom the choice of an American President might become interesting.

[Posted by Mark Liberman 1/20/2006 on behalf of Chris Culy]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 20, 2006 01:24 PM