Viewpoint reflexive?

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky points me to an interview with Bradford W. Parkinson, the chief architect of GPS, which contains the remarkable sentence

It was hurting themselves.

with an instance of themselves that flagrantly fails to satisfy the Clause-Mate Condition on reflexives in English, requiring that

Reflexive pronouns and their antecedents must belong to the same clause. (link; the sense of belong to here is explained in this posting)

But “untriggered reflexives” also occur in English, and there’s considerable variation from speaker to speaker as to which of these are acceptable. Even with context, Parkinson’s sentence is unacceptable to many speakers, but it does fit into a class of cases that some speakers accept: viewpoint, or perspectival, reflexives.

Now we need more of the context to see how things got set up for Parkinson’s themselves (bolded in this extract):

[interviewer] Can GPS be selectively switched on and off by the US?

[Parkinson] Of all the countries in the world we are the most dependent on GPS, and as a matter of fact the new satellites do not even have such a capability. Disrupting the signal would be very dangerous to our own citizens. Earlier, the US used a technique called Selective Availability (S/A) to deny use – by simply wiggling the timing on the signal. The use of WAAS, the use of EGNOS and the use of the other differential overlay systems like the one the Indians are building all completely remove the effect of any such ‘wiggle’.

Just before the first Iraq war, the US had turned on the GPS Selective Availability feature. But the irony was that, as soon as the war started, they decided to turn it off since many of the soldiers had civilian GPS sets. It was hurting themselves. We never should have done it in the first place.

The intended referent of themselves is provided by the earlier pronoun they (underlined above), referring to the responsible representatives of the US. But they isn’t in the same clause as themselves; it isn’t even in the same sentence.

There’s a considerable literature on various types of untriggered reflexives. Parker, Riley, & Meyer, “Untriggered reflexives in English” (American Speech, 1990) survey a number of these: in subject coordinate NPs (John and myself are responsible), in postgeneric PPs (people like yourself), in picture NPs (a snapshot of myself), in ostension (That’s myself, pointing to a photograph), etc. Some of these uses are condemned by usage manuals, but are nevertheless quite common. Crucially, 3rd-person examples of these types are rare; almost all the examples are 1st or 2nd person. The effect of these reflexives is emphasis or intensification, and they are accented.

Parkinson’s reflexive is not of any of these types, it’s 3rd person, and it’s unaccented.

Now we turn to another use of reflexives, as logophoric pronouns:

Logophoric pronouns are used in complements of verbs of saying or thinking to refer to the person responsible for the words or thoughts. (For some general discussion, see Peter Sells’s influential “Aspects of Logophoricity” in Linguistic Inquiry, 1987.)  Reflexive pronouns in some languages [Japanese, for instance] have logophoric uses, probably on the grounds that the speaker or writer is taking the viewpoint of the person whose speech or thought is being represented. (link)

An example from this posting:

Luttig expects that a private sector job will better position himself for a Supreme Court vacancy.

Here, expects is a verb of thinking, and the reflexive himself in its complement refers to the person doing the thinking. Many speakers of English find logophoric reflexives unacceptable — I am one — but some speakers accept them.

However, Parkinson’s reflexive isn’t in the complement of a verb of saying or thinking, so it’s not logophoric. But it’s in the neighborhood of logophoricity: there’s a verb of the right type — decided — in the preceding sentence, and its subject serves as the antecedent for the reflexive. As it happens, I posted in 2007, in “A reflexive too far”, on cases where the referent of the reflexive is the person whose point of view is taken in the situation denoted by the clause the reflexive is in, as in this example:

Mma Makutsi looked at her watch.  Mma Ramotswe and Mr Polopetsi were away on their trip to Mokolodi—she had felt slightly irritated that Mma Ramotswe should have chosen him to accompany her rather than herself;… (Alexander McCall Smith, Blue Shoes and Happiness, p. 128)

As I put it in that posting,

The writer or speaker simply assumes the viewpoint of someone mentioned in the preceding context who is highly topical at this point in the discourse. This mention can be in the same sentence as the reflexive … or it can be earlier in the discourse

That’s what’s going on in the Parkinson example. The second paragraph describes events from the point of view of US staff in Iraq, and that’s enough (for some speakers — again, not me) to license the reflexive themselves.

In that earlier posting, I discussed an example that goes one step further than this; in it, topicality alone seems to suffice to license a reflexive. What unites these cases, and some other types as well, is a move, on the part of speakers, to exploit reflexives for discourse effects.

2 Responses to “Viewpoint reflexive?”

  1. Julian C. Lander Says:

    But I think that the Parkinson example is not analogous to the others. The “they” that is the grammatical antecedent of “themselves” refers to decision-makers, while “themselves” refers either to the troops on the ground or the entire military contingent as a whole. The people making the decisions are not the ones carrying civilian GPS sets into battle: they are far removed from the battle itself.

  2. From the reflexives files « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] notable about this is the myself, an “untriggered” reflexive, neither anaphoric (with an antecedent in its clause) nor emphatic (doubling another NP, as in He […]

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