Note: This post continues my series on focus and pronoun interpretation.
Here is a highly simplified way of thinking about how we keep track of who and what we are thinking about. Imagine that every time someone or something wanders into view, we add them to a board in our brains, not unlike Stephen Colbert’s “On Notice” Board.
Just to make things easier, though, we’ll number the items on our board. Let’s assume that at the start of a conversation (whatever that is!), the board is empty. When someone (like Jane Fonda or Michael Adams) wanders by, we add them to the board:
- Jane Fonda
- Michael Adams
As a first approximation, assume that any pronoun can refer to any item on the board. How should we represent the scenario where a speaker intends for the pronoun she to refer to Jane Fonda? Well, if the board is set up as shown, we can represent this using an index:
What is she1 doing here?
Of course, we will want to prevent the index 2, which is linked to a man, from appearing on a feminine pronoun like she. In fact, there are many, many ways to index pronouns to items incorrectly. This system is just the start of a theory of pronoun reference, a way to represent the various possible references. The next step is to figure out the rules of which pronouns can refer to which items on the board and how items are added and removed from the board.
One step towards this theory is to notice that items can make it onto the board even if they are not currently in plain view of the speakers. Mere mention of someone is (often) enough to put them on the board. For instance, after the utterance of
President Obama was on TV this morning.
the board seems to update as follows:
- Jane Fonda
- Michael Adams
- President Obama
And a subsequent sentence can now refer to Obama:
He3 was complaining about the House of Representatives.
Abstraction & Focus Binding
What about bound pronouns, though? What should we put into slot 4 to give the right meaning to this sentence:
No girl in my class forgot her4 homework.
To deal with these cases, linguists use a process known as abstraction, which in a way allows you to talk directly about the board itself, instead of just the items on the board. For instance, one way to represent the meaning of the previous sentence is as follows:
No way of filling in slot 4 on the board with a girl in my class will make the following sentence true: “She4 forgot her4 homework.”
Similarly, we want focus binding to be able to discuss the board itself, giving the sentence
Kennedy looked good. People voted for him5.
Kennedy looked good. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.”
Since the name Kennedy would be unaccented there, this means the same thing as “People voted for Kennedy.” Seems like a roundabout meaning for something simple, but it does allow us to generate sloppy identity cases:
Kennedy looked good. People voted for him5. Nixon looked bad. People
didn’t vote for him5.
Kennedy looked good. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.” Nixon looked bad. There’s a way to fill slot 5 on the board with a name that would be unaccented in the same position that makes the following true: “People voted for him5.”
This maintains the exact same meaning for the elided verb phrase in both cases, and yet allows Kennedy to fill slot 5 the first time, and Nixon to fill slot 5 the second time. (The second time, either name would be unaccented.)