September 01, 2007

Prosody and anaphora (again)

From Ken Belson, "At I.B.M., a Vacation Anytime, Or Maybe No Vacation at All", NYT 8/31/07, p. 1:

"If leadership never takes time off, people will be skeptical whether they can," said Kim Stattner of Hewitt Associates, a human resources consultant.  "There is a potential for a domino effect."

On first reading, I took they to refer to the company's leadership: never taking time off suggests that they aren't in fact able to do so, that they're compelled to work.  On reflection, and taking into account the following allusion to a domino effect, it became clear to me that Stattner was saying that employees ("people") would be reluctant to take time off.  My first reading comes from taking the pronoun they to have the ordinary prosody of anaphoric pronouns: unaccented.  What Stattner actually said, however, surely had a contrastive accent on they, a prosody that's not represented in any way in the Times report.

There are ways to represent this prosody.  For example, in a Zits cartoon I reproduced here on May 12, a contrastive accent is indicated by bold-faced italics:

Jeremy's mother: I trust Hector.  Hector is a Good Boy.  ["Good Boy" is in italic script, suggesting yet another special prosody]

Hector objects to Jeremy: I don't call her names.

But the Times (like newspapers in general) is very sparing indeed with special fonts within the body of stories or editorial pieces (a number of readers have suggested to me that this allows for material to be sent electronically as plain ascii text).  A while back, I posted on another NYT piece where a special font would have been useful to represent contrastive accent:

Reducing unintended pregnancy is the key -- half of pregnancies are unintended, and 4 in 10 of them end in abortion.

To get the intended interpretation here, them must be read with contrastive accent, which is not represented in the text as printed.  In this case, these or those would have done the trick, but in the vacation story the writer was pretty much stuck with the words Stattner uttered; the only good alternative is to shift from direct quotation to a less direct representation of Stattner's words -- something like:

Kim Stattner of Hewitt Associates, a human resources consultant, observed that if leadership never takes time off, people will be skeptical whether they themselves can.

Probably the writer didn't see the problem here: as in the abortion story, the writer no doubt heard the words in his head with contrastive accent, and didn't see that what was on the page could very easily be read otherwise.

[Addendum 9/2/07: A correspondent writes to say that the -s on "takes" indicates that "they" cannot refer to the leadership.  As we've pointed out several times here on Language Log, the facts of usage are that a great many speakers allow "they" to be anaphoric to a collective noun -- that is, to refer to the members of an entity introduced into the discourse via a collective noun like "leadership" -- and that this possibility is available even when, as here, the collective noun has singular number agreement.  For such speakers (I am one, and Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum are others), the unintended interpretation, with apparently unaccented "they" referring to the leadership, is easily and immediately available.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 1, 2007 12:07 PM