Sloppy identity

From a comedy routine on this week’s Prairie Home Companion:

I hate myself. Pretty soon you will ___ too.

(Ellipsis marked by underlines, antecedent VP bold-faced.)

Two readings for the second sentence (with the filled-in ellipses in square brackets]:

(a) Pretty soon you will [hate me too]. (intended reading: pronoun filled in by carrying over the morphosyntactic person/number features of the antecedent in the previous sentence)

(b) Pretty soon you will [hate yourself too]. (pronoun filled in from the morphosyntactic person/number features of the antecedent in its own sentence)

The crucial point is that in neither reading is the object pronoun in the ellipsis filled in by substitution of an actually occurring NP (myself or you), which would give

*Pretty soon you will hate myself too.  OR

??Pretty soon you will hate you too. [requires some sort of conceptual split of the addressee into two persons]

Instead, the understood object pronoun (me or yourself) has the person/number features of the antecedent and the ±reflexive feature appropriate to its clause. (This is a species of what is sometimes called “sloppy identity”, since the pronoun is generously interpreted in context.)

… Just in case you were inclined to believe, in accord with a literally ancient, initially plausible, but nevertheless very silly, idea, that (certain types of) pronouns literally replace repeated NPs. Such pronouns pick out referents (in the discourse world), not linguistic expressions; the linguistic expressions (sometimes) supply the materials for referent-finding, but they’re the means, not the end.

(It might help to think of the way such reference works in signed languages, where the referents can be picked out by literally pointing to pre-established places in visual space, rather than by using conventional “pronominal” signs.)

3 Responses to “Sloppy identity”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Nice summary of the way pronouns can refer to things “not in the text”. I’ll be using it!

  2. Data points: sloppy identity 6/19/11 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (I was a bit startled to discover that sloppy identity hadn’t come up on Language Log before this posting of Mark’s. On this blog, I’ve touched on it only one time, briefly (here).) […]

  3. johnwcowan Says:

    If pronouns picked out expressions rather than their references, Bach and Peters could never have published, for their brains would still be expanding the macros.

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