Proper anaphoric islands

Posted by Victor Steinbok on ADS-L:

When it was announced that Romney will “unveil” his VP pick Paul Ryan on/in front of USS Wisconsin, I knew someone was going to say it. And [political commentator] Steve Benen did not disappoint–within minutes, his post on the Ryan pick [on the Maddow blog] included this line:

The announcement will be in front of the U.S.S. Wisconsin – which just happens to be Ryan’s home state.

(Actually, Benen was quoting Domenico Montaro and Mark Murray on NBCNews, here.)

Victor noted that the meaning was clear, but still the sentence seemed problematic to him, adding that “the number of examples of this type is not negligible”.

Yes indeed. What we have here is a special kind of “anaphoric island” violation, with an anaphor (which, in this case) that requires “going into” a complex proper name (the U.S.S. Wisconsin) to locate its referent (the state of Wisconsin).

Background discussion (involving VPE rather than relativizer which, and “going into” a lexical item rather than a complex proper name) from Language Log:

roughly forty years ago, … it was first suggested that lexical items are “islands” for anaphora, that parts of lexical items or referents merely evoked by lexical items cannot serve as antecedents for anaphoric elements (of several different kinds).  Here are typical violations of the Anaphoric Island Constraint (AIC):

I’m a pianist, but I don’t own one.  ‘… don’t own a piano’

Flautists can easily take them on planes.  ‘… can easily take (their) flutes on planes’

I speak Norwegian, but I’ve never been there.  ‘… never been to Norway’

There’s a huge literature on the AIC.  Early on, it was observed that more morphologically transparent lexical items are less problematic than more opaque ones.  Compare the examples above with:

I’m a piano-player, but I don’t own one.  ‘… don’t own a piano’

Flute-players can easily take them on planes.  ‘… can easily take (their) flutes on planes’

I speak Hawaiian, but I’ve never been there.  ‘… never been to Hawaii’

And many examples improve considerably in context.  That is, various factors contribute to easing the task of finding antecedents within islands.  Eventually, some linguists began to argue that the AIC was not a syntactic phenomenon at all, but a pragmatic one, having to do ease of antecedent retrieval (as related to contextual cues and morphological transparency, in particular) …

Complex proper names aren’t lexical items, but they have a kind of integrity that comes from the fact that when these expressions occur in sentences their parts are being mentioned rather than used; these parts don’t have their usual referents.

So Wisconsin in the U.S.S. Wisconsin is a different animal from Wisconsin in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin. It’s often pretty easy to work out this referential misfit, but it might strike many people as a kind of play on words.


2 Responses to “Proper anaphoric islands”

  1. Eugene Says:

    That’s great. I didn’t know that battleships had representation in the United States House of Representatives. No wonder military spending has such strong support in Congress.
    Hilarious now that it’s been pointed out, but how often are language users constrained by the anaphoric island constraint? We’re normally extremely efficient at identifying referents and largely oblivious to oddities like this one.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, ordinary speakers are rarely troubled by anaphoric island violations, at least when they have the context for the sentences. Linguists notice, as do grammatical sticklers (who are inclined to literally look for trouble).

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