May 12, 2005

If, as seems likely

Take a look at this sentence (part):

(1) if, as seems likely, the roads ever diverge, the Kurds will pursue their separate destiny.

Does this seem funny to you? It struck me a bit funny. Specifically, 'ever' struck me a bit funny. Without "as seems likely" the sentence would be impeccable, but that interposition seems to mess with the NPI licensing.

I'm very unsure about this: Obviously I can parse the sentence fine. But it did trip a little warning flag when I read it.

And there's a bit of Google confirmation for my queasy feeling. About 3,400,000 hits for "If [word word word] ever"; about 23,500 hits for "if as seems likely"; (1) is AOTW the only hit for "if as seems likely [word word word] ever" (and varying the number of intervening words doesn't help much).

(Well, maybe that's not such strong confirmation, since that isn't really a lot of hits for "if as seems likely." Someone gave a talk here about the perils of using Google for linguistic research, but I was at Rutgers. I plead rank amateurism, m'lud!)


(2) If, as seems likely, the roads diverge at all, the Kurds will pursue their separate destiny.
(3) If, as I expect, the roads ever diverge, the Kurds will pursue their separate destiny.
(4) If, as seems unlikely, the roads ever diverge, the Kurds will pursue their separate destiny.

(2) and (3) sound funny to me for the same reason (1) does. (And the only occurence of a construction like (3) I can find is "If (as I expect) no one will ever," where 'no one' is NPI-licensing; but "If as I expect" only get 518 hits AOTW, so that's not surprising.) (4) also sounds funny, but that may be just because "as seems unlikely" is funny--only 300 hits AOTW.

I don't know what the moral might be, but it's an interesting case. If you say something along the lines of "NPIs are licensed in contexts in which negation or doubt is expressed," then (1) would be bad because doubt isn't really expressed--'if' expresses doubt, but 'as seems likely' takes it back. But that's a very crude analysis of NPI-licensing. (I refer to my previous plea.)

Now, this seems OK to me:

(5) If the roads ever diverge, as seems likely, the Kurds will pursue their separate destiny.

That's not too surprising--see Kai von Fintel's comments to this post, especially perhaps #3. (I should also say--I can't find any Googlable examples of "If... NPI..., as seems likely." Except this: "If this is to be the only book about Rose Maddox that will ever be published
using first-hand sources, as seems likely"; and there 'ever' is licensed by 'only'. [UPDATE: Got one! "Geoff - if you ever win a prize here, as seems likely, I can see four ink
carts would be a good idea for what to send as your prize." But this isn't very strong evidence. Wish I knew how to do this search better.])

There might be an interesting issue with (5), if it is indeed acceptable. What is its syntactic structure? If, as seems plausible to me, "as seems likely" is somehow generated from something like this:

(6) If the roads ever diverge, as [PRO: it] seems likely [that the roads ever diverge

then it'd be odd, because in "It seems likely that the roads ever diverge" 'ever' isn't in an NPI-licensing requirement. But here I should defer to someone who knows more about the syntax of 'as'.

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 12, 2005 12:02 PM