A strange sounding anaphora

This post is about a syntactic phenomenon, but I’m not a syntactician, so it will be short and mostly uninformative.

In the most recent episode of This American Life (Blackjack) one of the stories is about a woman (Mrs. Bachman) who throws away an enormous amount of money with substantial assistance from various casinos. After she’s already lost a million or so dollars, one casino (Caesar’s) lend her over $100,000 more, and when she can’t pay it back, they sue. She returns the favor, her lawyer arguing that she was out of control and the casino folks knew it.

Sarah Koenig narrates, saying, at the 38:18 mark, of Mrs. Bachman’s lawyer:

His argument boiled down to this: Caeser’s had a duty, not to protect Mrs. Bachman from herself, from her own gambling habits, but to protect Mrs. Bachman from itself, from Caesar’s.

The anaphora “itself” is the strange bit. The emphasis on “it” is in the original, clearly meant to contrast Caesar’s from Mrs. Bachman as the source of the problem. The reflexive “itself” sounds very strange to me here, but “it” without the “self” doesn’t sound good either. I’m not sure if “itself” sounds strange because of the contrastive focus or because it’s a genuinely syntactically odd use of a reflexive pronoun.

It occurs to me that it sounds better to say “Caesar’s had a duty… to protect Mrs. Bachman from Caesar’s itself” or “… from the casino itself,” which makes me think this has something to do with “Mrs. Bachman” preventing a subsequent reflexive from referring to a noun phrase higher up in the tree.

There’s probably some c-command or Principle A action going on here, but I can’t remember what these mean well enough to work it out. And for all I know, working this kind of thing out with c-command and Principle A is passé anyway.

Okay, so I’m just flailing around, and the more I write about this, the sillier I’m going to end up sounding. Perhaps Josh will weigh in and deposit some actual syntactic knowledge.

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One Response to A strange sounding anaphora

  1. Examples like this are commonly used to show that we don’t actually know what the hell the conditions for Principle A application are. Most native speakers will agree with you that ‘itself’ is odd in this case.

    Textbook definition of Principle A is that an anaphor must be bound in its binding domain. There is some evidence that adjunct prepositional phrases are outside of this binding domain. For example:

    John(1) put his bag down [next to him(1)]
    ??John(1) put his bag down [next to himself(1)]

    That said –

    The police should not only protect us against criminals, they should also protect us against themselves.
    The police should not only protect us against criminals, they should also protect us against them.

    Both are OK for me. Both are OK for a lot of people. No one is really sure why.*

    The growing consensus is that Binding Theory is not purely syntactic; semantic considerations play a role too. Lots of facts have been obscured in attempts to make it purely syntactic, but both agentiveness and subject status of the antecedent seem to matter.

    Getting back to Caesar’s – “Caesar’s has a duty to protect people against it” sounds horrible to me (if ‘it’ is ‘Caesars’). “Caesar’s has a duty to protect people against itself” is much better. But I would still choose to say “Caesar’s has a duty to protect people against Caesar’s” in preference to either of them – presumably because whatever confluence of considerations are going on here don’t yield a good solution for “it/itself.”

    Anyway, sorry I don’t know the definitive answer. All I can say is that there isn’t a definitive answer. There are tons of puzzles like these, and most of them get left out of the intro textbooks.

    *(Of course, you can read “them” without emphasis in the second sentence and get coreference with “criminals,” but then the sentence is nonsensical.)

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