Discourse referents in hypothetical worlds

The datum here comes from a STOP-Homophobia.com posting on Facebook with an affecting plea from a young Australian man about same-sex marriage:

The set-up: I don’t have a boyfriend right now, with the indefinite NP a boyfriend, in the scope of negation, so we would ordinarily expect the NP not to establish a discourse referent that later anaphoric expressions could link to. But Hutson goes on with anaphoric he: but one day I would like to ask him to marry me. Definitely a WTF anaphoric reference.

Paradigm case, with the discourse referent set up explicitly:

(1) I have a boyfriend, and I would like to ask him to marry me.

Slightly more complex case, in which the discourse referent is set up in a conditional (alluding to a hypothetical world):

(2) If I find a boyfriend, I would like to ask him to marry me.

Still more complex case, with the discourse referent set up in a counterfactual conditional:

(3) If I had a boyfriend, I would like to ask him to marry me.

A counterfactual conveys the falsity of the proposition expressed in it, which in this case should mean that the speaker has no boyfriend, hence there’s no discourse referent for the pronoun to refer to. But even a counterfactual conditional establishes a hypothetical world — just a world different from the one we’re in — so a boyfriend introduces a discourse referent, and (3) is fine.

It seems pretty clear that Hutson has the counterfactual conditional if I had a boyfriend in his thoughts, as an “air-thought”, if you will, and for him that’s what licences the anaphoric he:

(4) I don’t have a boyfriend right now but — if I had a boyfriend— one day I would like to ask him to marry me.

(with the unexpressed thought marked with a strike-through).

But other people can’t know what’s in your thoughts (though it takes children a while to appreciate this), and it’s inconsiderate, uncooperative, of you to act as if they can. Hence the WTF reaction if you don’t actually express the air-thought.

I’m guessing that Hutson probably wouldn’t have said, rather than written, (4). The problem is that writing stuff out gives you time to entertain lots of auxiliary thoughts, and it’s easy to forget that you didn’t make them explicit. (It takes practice to get good at keeping track of what you’ve actually written, as opposed to what you intended to convey, and to put yourself in the position of your readers.)

Hutson’s last sentence has another inexplicit moment, the elliptical complement of the verb agree. Here there’s a lot of genuine play: several kinds of ellipsis can be only loosely related to material in the preceding context. Hutson’s intention is to ask if his readers agree that if he finds a boyfriend, Hutson should ask him to marry him, but it takes some inferencing to work that out; the superficial understanding would be that Hutson is asking if his readers agree that he would like to ask a hypothetical boyfriend to marry him, and who could deny that?  I’m willing to make the ellipical leap, but I suspect that some would balk.

Ok, he’s almost surely asking his readers if they agree that same-sex marriage should be legal in Australia. That idea is back there earlier in his posting, but expressed indirectly, and even I can’t see this as garden-variety complement ellipsis (even in a capacious and exuberant garden). I think I can divine his intentions, but he really should have written something like “Please share this if you agree that same-sex marriage should be legal in Australia”.

And, by the way, I do.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: