Here’s a puzzle for you: Study the four sentences below and provide a rule that explains (a) why the first 3 are correct while the last one (marked with an *) is incorrect, and (b) why sometimes the reflexive pronoun (ending in –self/-selves) appears before its referent (underlined) and sometimes after:
- Pete shot himself in the foot.
- Speaking for himself at last, John proposed to Priscilla.
- The picture of himself on the post office wall disturbed John quite a bit.
- *Joan told me herself hates chocolate.
Shouldn’t that first sentence be as easy to explain as Pete shot Joe in the foot?
Maybe so, but generative grammarians have had a heck of a time accounting for reflexives. They have developed a whole line of explanation, known as binding theory, to regulate reflexives and other usages, called anaphora, in which a pronoun or noun phrase always refers to another noun in the same sentence.
This blog has never been comfortable with generative theory, mainly because its computational approach omits the possibility of any functional discussion about things like how language works and what’s the good of it. The theory’s trouble with reflexive pronouns has made clear another objection. The solutions generative grammar offers are ad hoc and its method cumbersome. The result is an arbitrary, complex and incomplete account of the perfectly ordinary sentences given above.
Going on the assumption that you can’t beat something with nothing, a bit over a year ago I developed an alternate account of syntax, one that I call Attention-Based Syntax (ABS) and the paper describing it was published online. That paper lays out a way to parse sentences, based on the idea that sentence structure is the result of speaker and listener directing their joint-attention to elements of a topic. When I wrote the paper I payed no attention to anaphora in general or reflexives in particular, but in the past few months I thought it might be fun to see if ABS could do any better with the problem of reflexives. To my relief it turned out to be rather easy. In fact the hardest part of the task lay in realizing that it was all very simple. Once I saw how simple it was, ABS pointed me to an immediate solution. The same people who reviewed and published my first paper have now reviewed and published another, this one titled Reflective Anaphora in Attention-Based Syntax. It requires stating only one ABS principle to cover all the sentences cited above. If you are a fan of Occam’s Razor and its preference for the simplest solution, I expect you will favor my approach even though it requires learning a new way of parsing sentences. (Note: ABS also refers to binding, but the term has nothing in common with generative binding theory.)
The ABS principle that explains English reflexive usages states: “when an object matches a subject, use a reflexive SP for the object; or when a joined tail matches either a binder’s subject or object, use a reflexive SP for the tail.” A “reflexive SP” is ABS jargon for a reflexive pronoun while a “binder” is roughly an action verb. Notice that the principle says nothing about the reflexive coming before or after the match.
Pete shot himself in the foot: The subject and object match, so the object takes a reflexive pronoun.
Speaking for himself at last, John proposed to Priscilla: In ABS jargon, this sentence begins with a half-bound utterance (speaking for himself at last) followed by a bound utterance (John proposed to Priscilla). The object of the half-bound utterance and the subject of the bound utterance are the same, so the object of the half-bound utterance takes a reflexive pronoun.
*Joan told me herself hates chocolate: This sentence too begins with a half- bound utterance (Joan told me) but this time it is the subject that matches the subject in the bound utterance ([Joan] hates chocolate) so no reflexive can be used.
The picture of himself on the post office wall disturbed John quite a bit: The subject of this sentence is the phrase “The picture of himself” so you might not expect a reflexive pronoun; however, in ABS this subject is called a complex SP of which picture is the head, himself the tail, and of the join. Since we have a “joined tail,” the second part of the principle applies, and, as the joined tail matches the object of the binder (disturbed), the joined tail is a reflexive pronoun.
For a fuller discussion of ASB terminology and how it works with reflexives see my paper, posted here.
I am much encouraged by the way a system I developed without paying any attention to reflexive sentences turned out to have an implicit explanation for the usages all along. I don’t expect the generativists to throw in the towel immediately, or even acknowledge my deed, but now that I have found out how satisfying it is to run rings around their complex, as hoc principles, I plan to keep at it. In the end, we will smoke them out.