Saturday, February 27, 2010

The shifting ground of backshifting

Recently, a correspondent asked about fall in Aristotle said that heavy things fall quicker than lighter things. Should fall be fell, he wondered.

I responded that the simple present tense is fine here, even preferred. I went on to say that backshifting is rarely obligatory and that, generally speaking, backshifting seems to be more common when talking about discrete events than general facts or states.

But then another participant in the discussion brought up the sentence People thought the earth was flat. In this sentence, the present tense of be just doesn't work. So what's the difference?
I played with the sentences while I ate my breakfast, and still didn't come up with a simple grammatical explanation for the difference between them, but a few possibilities crossed my mind. At first, I thought perhaps the was in people thought that the earth was flat was not a case of backshifting but rather a use of the irrealis past tense for counterfactual statements. Consider the examples:

Imagine you lived in Hawai'i.
I wish I lived in Hawai'i.

But that was wrong. In backshifting the subordinate verb tense is controlled by the tense of the reporting verb. Compare these sentences:

-Some people think the earth is flat.
-Some people think the earth was flat.
-?Some people thought the earth is flat.
-Some people thought the earth was flat.

The first of these four sentences is fine, even though we know the earth isn't flat. The second sentence is also fine, even though we know the earth was never flat. The third sentence is the only one that strikes me as odd. Likely then, the subordinate verb is indeed being controlled by the main verb. In other words, this is in fact backshifting.

My next thought was that there's something particular about the two reporting verbs. Consider that if you
said something, you may very likely still believe it today, but if you thought it (rather than think it), you probably don't currently hold your previous idea. There seems to be something to this. I'm just introspecting, but the first three of these strike me as fine.

-People said the earth was flat.
-People said the earth is flat.
-People thought the earth was flat.
?People thought the earth is flat.

So maybe there is an element of irrealis in there as well.

The other thing that might be confusing things is our folk ideas about physics. Any eight year old who's been to school can tell you that the earth is round. On the other hand, I think most adults have to think twice about the relationship between falling speed and weight. Our day-to-day experience often conflates light things with things that have high wind resistance, so if I drop a light thing (such as a tissue) and a heavy thing (e.g., my keys), my keys will hit the ground first.

I think, however, that if we substitute the concept of falling speed with something more clearly wrong, we still end up with both tenses being acceptable in the subordinate clause in the case where said is the reporting verb.:

-Aristotle said that apples were oranges.
-Aristotle said that apples are oranges.

Hopefully, then, we can reject this intrusion of psychology and just stick to grammar. In the end, the best I can come up with is that the form is a mixture of backshifting and irrealis that depends on the semantics of the reporting verb; not a very pretty explanation, I know.


Circeus said...

Have you considered the issue might be related simply to the fact that people no longer think the earth is flat? In that perspective, one can see it maybe not as a discrete event, but as a discrete time period?

As a side note, is the backshifting in "people started thinking the earth was flat" (which can take either form, I believe) is related or something else entirely?

Drew Ward said...

My first thought in reading this is that if we used quoted reference that is would (should) be ok:

People thought the world was flat.
*People thought the world is flat.
People thought, "the world is flat."

not totally sure how that would affect things...

I've been doing quite a bit of work with aspect lately and particularly the fact that our blanket term 'simple aspect' actually refers to a series of nondurational aspects. They seem to be structurally identical but semantically different.

So far I've come up with three: informative, general, and habitual.

Informative refers to your standard non-durational actions or such just used to inform the listener or reader of some information (I am a doctor. John drives a jeep.). In these utterances the secondary temporal reference (the point on the timeline used to determine tense) is TAST - time of assertion.

General refers to utterances that attest to some generalization (John likes pizza.). Habitual refers to habitual truths (John drinks coffee every morning. It rains here everyday.) in contrast to informative utterances, the secondary temporal reference is not TAST, but TEVL - time of evaluation. This is the point along the timeline of an utterance at which the attestation can be evaluated as true or not.

The informative group is the one that has bothered me, as it treats actions and nonactions the same and that seems like it should be problematic.

What I am thinking is that the examples you've given may be part of a fourth nondurational aspect that is informative but more constrained. It almost seems to be a TAST (People thought) - informing presently about the past; and an embedded TEVL (the earth was flat) - something that the people would have evaluated as true based on their understanding at the time, but that now by current understanding could only be evaluated as false.

Alan Gunn said...

Your physics is a little off. Other things (like volume and shape) equal, heavier things do fall faster than light things in air; it is only in a vacuum that they fall at the same rate. It isn't a matter of conflating weight and wind resistance: A feather and an identical object in size and shape, but made of lead, have the same "wind resistance" in the sense of presenting the same surface area toward the wind but do not fall at the same rate except in a vacuum.

On the language point, Circeus seems right to me. "Some people thought the world is flat" seems fine if we're talking about a group of living people who have just recently been told of their error.