July 23, 2007

Just because people visit a whorehouse

From Frank Rich's Sunday July 22, 2007 NYT column; it's behind a pay-me gate, but I've put a copy here

"Newspapers back home also linked the senator to a defunct New Orleans brothel, a charge Mr. Vitter denies. That brothel's former madam, while insisting he had been a client, was one of his few defenders last week. "Just because people visit a whorehouse doesn't make them a bad person," she helpfully told the Baton Rouge paper, The Advocate."

This was fun to read because it sounds authentic (but I realize we have no way of being sure of that) and has one of my favorite constructions and may or may not have another of my favorites but interesting either way.

One is the "Just because X doesn't mean Y" construction, here in the variant "Just because X doesn't make Y Predicate" . After years of foolish disdain under the influence of my prescriptivist upbringing, I realized that this hopelessly "ungrammatical" construction is our most unambiguous way of negating an "if-then" construction, specifically negating the conditional connection itself while remaining uncommitted as to the truth of the consequent. I don't know of any other way to negate a conditional that is both unambiguous and colloquial.

I thought there must have been some work on this construction sometime, and sure enough, around the water cooler at Language Log Plaza Arnold Zwicky told me about a nice article due to appear, treating the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of the construction with construction grammar:

Bender, Emily M. and Andreas Kathol. To appear. Constructional Effects of Just Because ... Doesn't Mean ... BLS 27.  (Also here: www-csli.stanford.edu/~bender/papers/bender_kathol01.ps )  -- it contains references to earlier work on the construction as well.

And the other phenomenon the quoted sentence may or may not illustrate is "singular "they"", discussed a quite a lot on Language Log -- here and here, for instance. I see why I felt unsure: There are three expressions connected to one another by anaphora or predication: people, them, a bad person. If you just look at people ... them, then them looks like a normal plural. But then there's make them a bad person. That isn't definitive either, but it favors singular "they". This may be the sort of intermediate case that softens us up and helps singular "they" enter the language without much notice.

Posted by Barbara Partee at July 23, 2007 03:14 PM