Data points: optional reflexives 3/17/11

From “Australia’s truly glamorous camper”, NewScientist 3/5/11, p. 22:

Call it classy camping gear. Baby Australian leafhoppers (Kahaono montana) pitch silk tents to keep them safe from predators.

The point of interest is the non-reflexive object them, anaphoric to the subject baby Australian leafhoppers — in a configuration where a reflexive pronoun (themselves) would normally be expected.

Reflexive pronouns are mandatory when the pronoun is the direct object of a verb that has a coreferential NP as its subject, as in

Tim blamed himself. Tim considered himself a victim. Tim committed himself to fighting. Tim asked himself to be heroic.

(In all of these, him rather than himself would refer to someone other than Tim.) This restriction extends to a wide range of two-verb constructions in which the pronoun is the direct object of the second verb (while being coreferential to the subject of the first):

Tim tried to defend himself. Tim kept contradicting himself. Tim promised his friends to defend himself. Tim went to the session to understand himself better.

Then things get complicated. In particular, there’s a well-known collection of cases where reflexives are optional (some CGEL discussion on p. 1489):

Tim always kept a gun near him/himself. Tim directed the overflow away from him/himself.

These have governing prepositions indicating spatial location, but there are also some two-verb examples, with certain specific verbs, as in the NewScientist example, with keep, and in:

Tim used the tarpaulin to make him/himself safe from the rain. Tim had some medicine to help/get him/himself out of pain.

There’s considerable individual variation for both types of optional reflexives.

For further entertainment, note that there are cases of impermissible reflexives in two-verb constructions:

Tim prevented/kept the rain from hitting him/*himself.

So all three possibilities are attested within clauses: obligatory, optional, and impermissible reflexives. (Between-clause reflexivization is another matter. Generally, reflexives are impermissible between clauses — Tim said that Mary had seen him/*himself — but there are complex patterns of exceptions.)

I never promised you that syntax would be easy.




4 Responses to “Data points: optional reflexives 3/17/11”

  1. Ewelina Says:

    What a fantastic summary! Thanks for that. Yes, pronouns cause problems, and not only reflexive pronouns, it would appear. People tend to say ”Me and her like watching movies” when in fact they mean ”She and I like watching movies” – we should have both pronouns in subject case, not object case… I do, however, see people use myself as a subject, particularly in semi-formal writing (emails sent out in my previous office job). Perhaps some people misguidedly use this form, in the belief that it sounds more formal.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      There’s a considerable literature about Acc, Nom, and Refl pronouns in uses other than the prescribed, though in some cases it’s not even clear that these uses are non-standard.

      But when you say “People tend to say ”Me and her like watching movies” when in fact they mean ”She and I like watching movies””, you’re mistaking what’s going on. People who say this meant to say exactly what they said; but their system for pronoun use is different from the prescribed standard (though their system has been around for many hundreds of years, and some would argue that it’s the one you’d expect for English and that the current prescribed standard is an artificial imposition on formal written standard English).

  2. F. Escobar C. Says:

    This comments adds nothing to the discussion, but I just wanted to say that this note is another reminder of how complicated syntactical processes we take for granted really are. Hence the troubles with trying to get computers to process natural language. I have this on my mind because a couple of hours ago I read a Scientific American Mind article (this one) that highlights some of the difficulties with language that computers have not been able to handle. The author mentions precisely that pattern of exceptions within exceptions that you describe here.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Russian has a special pronoun (and a possessive) for this kind of reflexive use. Deciding how to translate them into English gives students fits, even if they’d have no trouble at all producing the sentence in English in the first place. (In fact a number of things about translating are like that…)

    I would certainly have used ‘themselves’ in the leafhoppers sentence.

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