May 23, 2007

Baseball conditionals

I had two breakfast meetings this morning, which cut into my usual blogging time, so I apologize for neglecting an inbox full of fascinating messages about Belgian finch dialects, jihad and war etymologies, linguistic lolcats, redundant prepositions, and other topics as well. In the few minutes before my next appointment, though, I do have time to pass along a truly wonderful quotation. Under the subject line "Baseball conterfactuals", Barbara Partee wrote:

Here's an example of the now-common way of expressing counterfactual conditionals among baseball players and managers that's so extreme I had to read it twice before catching on that it was a counterfactual; the preceding sentence and the play-by-play show that it must be, and it's grammatically consistent with other slightly less extreme examples I encounter almost daily.

(Structure: Clause1, clause 2. -- both plain indicatives. Interpretation: if clause 1 had been the case, clause 2 would have been the case.) Oh, I think what makes this one a little unusual is that the first clause is in the past tense. I think usually they're both present tense.

"He could have been a little rusty early on, and then the inning he gave up four runs I think he kind of lost his composure a little bit," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He just did a little damage control in that situation, we're OK."" (AP Recap of Toronto 6, Baltimore 4, game of May 22, David Ginsburg, AP Sports Writer)

Perlozzo means that if the pitcher (Daniel Cabrera) had kept his composure and done a little damage control in the fifth inning, his team would have been OK. That's Barbara's analysis, and she's obviously right.

I think of this general class of constructions as "Elmore Leonard conditionals". Here are a couple of examples that I cited in an earlier post ("Parataxis in Pirahã", 5/19/2006):

"What're you having, conch? You ever see it they take it out of the shell? You wouldn't eat it."

"Listen," Renda said, "we get to a phone we're out of the country before morning."

The first one is counterfactual, and has the additional feature of an implicit when-clause: "If you had ever seen [a conch] when they take it out of the shell, you wouldn't eat it." The punctuation may imply a rising intonation on the clause ending in "out of the shell", and may also suggest a missing initial "did".

The second example is a more ordinary present-tense case, equivalent to "if we get to a phone, we'll be out of the country before morning".

I don't think there's any special connection between the national pastime and paratactic conditionals of this kind, whether counterfactual or otherwise. But baseball is an activity where post-game counterfactual reasoning is half the fun, and it's carried out by the same kind of (vernacular American) people that Elmore Leonard writes dialogue for.

Exercise for the reader -- analyze the functionally similar (but structurally different) example at the end of the same article:

"We just needed one fly ball or a base hit with the bases loaded, and we've got a different ballgame," Perlozzo said.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 23, 2007 10:00 AM