Note on split antecedents

In a posting yesterday, I looked at this somewhat challenging example:

(1) Kanye West is taking their “feud” to Jimmy Kimmel’s show tomorrow

The anaphoric pronoun their refers to Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel taken together, as in

(2) Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel are taking their feud to Kimmel’s show tomorrow

The two names are not only not conjoined (as they are in (2), where Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel is a constituent), but are in fact on opposite sides of their. That takes some interpretive work.

In standard examples with split antecedents (including split antecedents for their), either both precede the pronoun, so that the pronoun is strictly anaphoric, or both follow it, so that the pronoun is cataphoric. Ordinary speakers rarely notice that such examples might be problematic, even though schoolbook treatments of anaphoric pronouns almost always insist that such pronouns are literally replacements for their antecedents. (Their in (2) is said to be a replacement for Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel.) Split antecedents, even simple ones, do not permit such an analysis.

Two simple examples with split antecedents Sam and Janet, (3) with strictly anaphoric their, (4) with cataphoric their:

(3) Sam told Janet that their evening together had been enchanted.

(4) At the end of their evening together, Sam told Janet it had been enchanted.

Unlike (1), such sentences go by without notice all the time.


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