have always been men

Recently on his blog, Russell Lee-Goldman looked at a moderately complex example that led to some discussion of

(1) Most of my friends have always been men.

with the intended reading ‘it’s always been the case that most of my friends are men’ (with wide-scope always). That’s certainly the reading I got at first. But if you think about it long enough you can see another reading, with narrow-scope always: ‘consider my friends; most of them have been men always, i.e. throughout their lives’ (implicating that some of the friends are F-to-M transsexuals). (You can think of this as the “tranny reading”.)

It seems to me that the tranny reading is much easier to get if the adverb is placed differently, in

(2) Most of my friends always have been men.

Another way to think of the two readings is that in the wide-scope reading always is a sentence adverbial, while in the narrow-scope (tranny) reading it’s a VP adverbial.

In any case, (1) and (2) are both ambiguous, but for me the tranny reading is easier to get for (2) than for (1). I’m not quite sure what this follows from, but that’s my judgment.

The original example was a coordination (of the Right Node Raising variety):

(3) Most of my friends are and have always been men.

Here I find the tranny reading easier to get than in (1). Perhaps this has to do with the accent pattern of Right Node Raising, which in this case puts matching accents on are and been.

4 Responses to “have always been men”

  1. Ian Preston Says:

    For me, the transsexual reading of (1) came before the intended one; I suppose I was just expecting something unusual. If it had been me I would have said: ” My friends have always been mostly men.” I suppose that has an unintended intersexual interpretation.

  2. Russell Says:

    How about this for an “explanation”?

    In general, I find “have always” more grammatical than “always have,” apart from likely or less likely readings. Given that, when confronted with a less acceptable placement of a frequency adverb, I assume it has a scope more in line with its syntactic position: namely, a VP modifier. The “have always” order, on the other hand, has the adverb in the right “slot” for sentential scope.

    With the caveat that all of these judgments (of grammaticality, likely readings, and the rest) are flaky, squishy, etc.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Ditto what Ian said. The transexual reading was the first one that I got, though it may be pointed out that it can also include FTM transexuals (which is somewhat more consistent with the other reading, incidentally.) My preference for the desired reading would be “I’ve always had mostly male friends” though that is also open to an intersex reading.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    You have to get pretty explicit to rule out the tranny reading: Most of my friends, now and throughout my life, have been men.

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