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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I am not a native speaker of English. If the sentence is unacceptable, pardon me. if it isn't not, please explain it to me.

"John seems to Mary to love himself"

Why doesn't the speaker say "I thought that Mary was a woman" or "whaa?"?
BLOGGER: Excellent question. Fitch would have done well to include that one in his consideration. I'm going to wing this answer a little bit, following some half worked-out notes, but I'm confident my approach still holds.

The tricky thing here is that 'seems' is an intransitive verb. Upon hearing 'John seems,' listeners do not expect to have their attention redirected. Typical sentences might be, "John seems angry/upset/in a good mood/ready to fight.'

So a sentence that begins, 'John seems to Mary' causes a moment of surprise. When wearing my editor's cap, I would probably consider reworking the sentence to avoid this bump; nonetheless, it is allowable.

According to work by James Hurford (see my post 'Just How Old Are Noun Phrases, Oct 21, 2007) that we can track as many as four variables at the same time--it, this, that, and t'other--so awkward as it is, we add Mary to our field of attention, tracking both. But we haven't moved John out of the picture. Thus, we cannot say, *John seems to Mary hit the ball. That sentence forgets about John, which is not allowed.

Thus listeners expect the sentence to get them back to John: John seems to Mary to be very angry, John seems to Mary to love Agnes; John seems to Mary to be very like a school superintendent she once slept with. In all of those. All of these sentences refer back to John, so John seems to Mary to love himself is quite in keeping with these sentences.


I would more or less agree with you in saying that the explanation lies in the fact that "seem" is a one-place predicate. I would like to ask a further question to see how far your way of theorizing the issue may go.

1- How do you explain the expletive "it" in terms of directing attention, say in a sentence like "It seems that Mary loves John"?

2 - do you see your proposal can be used in explaining why some sentences are grammatical while some other are not?
BLOGGER: Thank you for the courtesy of taking me seriously. I’ll respond by taking you seriously.

How far does my approach go? I want to push it as far as I can, to see just how far it can be pushed. Thus, I really appreciate the on-target questions Hasan is asking. Physics tends to be right or wrong. The equation works or it does not. The life sciences are not so firm, but I want to press the attention idea very hard.

What about “It seems that Mary loves John”? What’s that “it” about, especially since some speakers will drop the word and say simply, “Seems that Mary loves John”? There are a number of similar dummy its: It turns out that Mary loves John; It happens that Mary loves John; It has come to pass that Mary loves John… When you see a string of such sentences together, the emptiness of the whole set of phrases jumps out. Seems, turns out, happens, came to pass… there is a kind of dual purpose here. The speaker wants to report that Mary loves John, but something pulls the speaker back. At the same time, there is nothing else to point to. The speaker does not have something on the order of, “Mary seems to love John, but she is having a mad affair with Jed,” or even, “Much to my surprise, Mary loves John.” So instead of pointing to something else, the speaker does a form of throat clearing by coming up with an empty phrase that has the look of something grammatical but points nowhere.

The kind of analysis I perform is plainly much more psychological than that performed by most professional linguists. Stripping a sentence of its human context is akin to studying the dead body of an animal. There is much to be discovered about its anatomy, but whenever some mystery is discovered—what do you think this bone is all about?—you have to shift your study to live examples.

giorgio marchetti

Edmund says: “The kind of analysis I perform is plainly much more psychological than that performed by most professional linguists”, but I think his explanation is in no way inferior to the ones given by linguists.

In fact, his explanation “the speaker does a form of throat clearing by coming up with an empty phrase that has the look of something grammatical but points nowhere”, which I fully subscribe, reminds me of what Wallace Chafe said in his book “Discourse, Consciousness, and Time” (1994, pp.84-85):

“It is in the nature of grammaticization to extend functional instances to nonfunctional ones (…) we need at least to recognize the existence of subjects that are nonfunctional (…). As an example, because English uses subjects so pervasively, it forces the presence of a subject even when a state or event has no referents that functions as participants at all. (…) Examples are the well-known weather expressions

It’s really hot

The it is there because English finds it impossible to get along without a subject even when no starting point is available to fill that role”.

(As to the notion of starting-point, I remind that for Chafe - who quotes the psychologist G. F. Stout - “the subject is that product of previous thinking which forms the immediate basis and starting-point of further development”).

In short, the impersonal subject is a consequence or by-product of the process of grammaticization: it is required by grammar, to sustain – as to say – the verb, but really does not point anywhere.

Giulio Benedetti

I too would like to say something about the explanation in attentional terms of the so-called “expletive ‘it’”. In my opinion, cases such as “it seems that John loves Mary”, on one hand, and the verbs that designate meteorological phenomena, on the other, are different. Some preliminary considerations are necessary to explain the reason for this.
According to our theory, the things that require a prolonged attentional focalization in order to be known are the meanings of the verbs (or words whose theme or root is of a verbal kind, such as “recognition”, “invasion”, “birth” etc). When we recognize what a verb designates, our attention can almost always also isolate some objects (which we recognize instantaneously instead) from the process or state (for the sake of simplicity, from now on “process” shall be used) that is the meaning of the verb. The possible objects are: agent, means, direct object, indirect object. The agent is the object that originates and carries out the process, that is, that precedes and determines the progress of the process. In other words, such an object that, if removed, the process would not exist. “Subject” is instead what is focused on by attention and kept present before a verb. The difference between agent and subject is very clear in the passive clauses (e.g., “the thief was arrested by the police”) where not the agent, but the patient, is considered first and kept present when we add the verb, i.e., used as a subject.
The case of the verbs that designate meteorological phenomena is perhaps the only case where there is no verb-related object that has the features of an agent. In cases such as “it rains”, “it snows” etc. there is practically no instantaneously recognizable object that is separated from the process: all we see is the process only (for example, with the verb “to rain” there is practically no separate object (“water”), because when it rains water appears in a particular form, which is typical of “raining”, and this form cannot be separated from the process of “raining” itself). Since all the other verbs have a recognizable agent, the weather verbs are provided, from analogy, with a third person neuter pronoun as a subject (this pronoun can be designated by a separated word, as in English, or the form of the verb only, as in Italian, or both things, as in French). Therefore, in the case of the weather verbs the third person neuter pronoun designates nothing, actually.
In my opinion, the cases such as “it seems that John loves Mary” are different. In these cases an agent-subject exists. The agent-subject is the whole subordinate clause. Saying, for example, “it seems that John loves Mary” is substantially no different from saying “(the fact) that John loves Mary seems”. We use sentences of the first kind because for some reason we want to anticipate the content of the subordinate clause. In the case of the sentences such as “it seems”, “it is possible” etc, for example, we want to highlight at once that the content of the subordinate clause is not a reality, but a possibility. Because of this, we put the verb that indicates this in the first place. If we did not, our listener would be at first induced to think that “John loves Mary”, for example, is a reality, then forced by the verb “seems” to change his or her mind. Therefore, in these cases, too, the third person neuter pronoun is something required by grammar, but it is not that it designates nothing (as happens in the case of the weather verbs): it anticipates an agent-subject that exists, but is preferably expressed afterwards for the aforesaid reason. Hence, although in both cases both an agent-subject and a verb are present at the speech level, at the level of the operating of attention in the case of the weather verbs attention focuses on a process only, in the other cases attention actually focuses both on an agent-subject and a process.

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