March 10, 2004

Trust Me

While shuffling through my briefcase looking for some papers I vitally needed, I thought:

(1) I wouldn't trust me with any top-secret papers.

It struck me that there's a subtle difference between this and:

(2) I wouldn't trust myself with any top-secret papers.

(1) is a general warning to anyone [or perhaps some restricted set of people] who has secret papers not to entrust them to me. (2) means something more specific: If I myself had secret papers, I would be uneasy about what would happen to them, or would take special steps to ensure that they remained safe despite my bungling. (2) might be read the way I've interpreted (1), I suppose, but I don't think it can work vice versa.

In any case, there's a question: Why is it grammatical to use "me" instead of the reflexive in (1)? The answer, I suspect, has to do with variable binding. [Amateur linguistics hour is now in effect; someone has surely studied this already.]

"Would" always, it seems to me, presupposes some implicit reference to another situation--something like "three days ago, I would...." or "If wishes were horses, I would...." or "If I were you, I would...." I'm not saying that there's always a deep-structure phrase that's elided in surface structure, only that for "I would phi" to be true "I will phi" or "I do phi" must be true in some other situation, somehow determined by context.

In (1), "I" is being treated as a variable. What the speaker has in mind is something like "If I were you, I wouldn't trust me with any top-secret papers." That is, "X would not trust me with any top-secret papers," where the value of X and situation are determined by context (it could be anyone with secret papers, or some contextually salient person who has secret papers on offer). "Me" is not bound to "I," so it retains its reference to me.

In (2), "I" is also a variable--but "myself" is bound to "I." So we get "X would not trust X with any top-secret papers," value of X and situation are again determined by context. If no one else is salient, X may be me--so we get "I would not trust myself with any top-secret papers (if I had them)." If someone else is salient, it may refer to them--"Moe [the klutzy spy] would not trust Moe with any secret papers."

The paraphrases in the last two paragraphs have all contained the phrase "would not." Would not under what circumstances? Usually--under the circumstances in which X makes judgments that I would make. So I am expressing the judgment, in (1), that X should not trust me with the papers, and in (2), that X should not trust X's self with the papers. (Though you can say "I wouldn't trust myself if I'd gone through what she's gone through.")

So in (1) "I" is used as a variable, to denote the person who does the trusting, but the pronoun retains some first-personal aspects; the judgments expressed are still my own, rather than those that would be made by the person who is assigned to the variable.

If any of this is right, it looks like an interesting case.

[PS I printed out new copies of the papers I had been looking for. I have no idea where they went.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 10, 2004 07:03 PM

You might be interested in George Lakoff's paper "I'm Not Myself Today" in Spaces, Worlds and Grammar (Fauconnier and Sweetser, eds) and a bunch of things in Gilles Fauconnier's Mental Spaces and Mapping in Thought and Language, all of which deal, among other things, with these kinds of oddities of co-reference.

Posted by: Vera Tobin at March 12, 2004 07:23 AM

Thanks--I will try to look at those. (And no problem about the double-post, which I've cleaned up.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 12, 2004 12:50 PM