March 16, 2006

Oh no, a great big monster!

I just wrote this sentence, which I think is entirely nondeviant in context:

(1) If I were the sitelords I would not approve my comment now, just to show me.

Leaving aside the incomprehensibility, it seems to me that the behavior of the first-person pronoun is typical of counterfactuals beginning with "If I were...." We might be able to approximate what is going on here thus: Say that there are possible worlds in which the sitelords have more or less my personality, but in which I nevertheless exist and have left the same comment.

Then (1) amounts, roughly, to: In the nearest such world, the sitelords (acting as I would) would not approve my comment, just to show me. That is, the second "I" refers to me-as-sitelords in this possible world, while "me" and "my" refer to me-as-me in this possible world.

Except that there are lots of problems with viewing this in terms of a possible world, starting perhaps with the fact that if the sitelords had more or less my personality the site would be much different and I would never have left the comment. (In this world they just say they've lost it AOTW. Yay! Go Becks!) Maybe that is just one of the standard objections to possible-worlds analysis of counterfactuals.

Still, it seems as though there may be no analysis in terms of possible worlds that preserves the direct reference of "I." In fact, that may be true even of simpler cases like "If I were N.N., I wouldn't say that," since direct reference theories may preclude a possible world in which the antecedent is true; and the consequent presumably should be analyzed in terms of whether N.N. or a counterpart says that in some possible world, and if "I" directly refers to me it may prevent us from analyzing it as referring to N.N. or the counterpart in the other world.

If I remember correctly Kaplan addresses a sentence like this in discussing monsters, in "Demonstratives." (Monsters are devices that shift the referent of context-dependent items like "I"; Kaplan argues that English doesn't and can't contain any.) Except if I remember correctly, the sentence is something like "If I were Marilyn Monroe, I would want to kiss me," which seems wrong; if I were John F. Kennedy, I would (would still?) want to kiss Marilyn Monroe, but there's no reason to think that Marilyn Monroe would want to kiss me even if she had roughly my preferences etc. Which seems to me what that sentence would say.

Monsters are a subject of live debate now, and I expect I haven't said anything new here. Just wanted to record the sentence.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 16, 2006 04:02 PM

Yes, yes, I am awesome.

Posted by: Becks at March 16, 2006 05:47 PM

Why are they of serious interest? IANAEoPoL, but is the problem that monsters seem to be a rare case of the failure of 'I' to be a direct reference pronoun?

Well, okay. But most of the monsters are mildly humorous or very clunky.

"If I were you, I wouldn't talk to me like that."
"That's good, I'd hate to think of you as alone and talking to yourself."

The humor's created because something's obviously dodgy about those sentences; 'I' shifts reference mid-sentence, which it's not supposed to do.

This doesn't appear to me to be a challenge to the rule or a problem.

Posted by: Cala at March 22, 2006 08:42 PM

Yup, it's failure of 'I' as a direct reference pronoun. And I do take "If I were you, I wouldn't talk to me like that" seriously; it's not that funny until the second speaker deliberately misconstrues it. But the first utterance is comprehensible and natural (note that you didn't say "I wouldn't talk to myself like that"). So 'I' isn't supposed to shift reference, but somehow it does, and we understand it. It's not even that clunky.

Maybe I should say more, but I have to run. This massive paper argues for the existence of monsters in English and other languages, but either I haven't been able to read it all or I haven't been able to understand it -- I forget which. More citations here. Aaargh, I don't think I'll ever got on top of this all.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 22, 2006 09:38 PM