But it’s obvious, isn’t it?

As a linguist or, more specifically, as a theoretical syntactician, I hold and often express some minority opinions.[1]Outside of syntactic theory too Often these opinions are met with bafflement and an assertion like “We’ve known for years that that’s not the case” because of this phenomenon, or that piece of data—“Control is derived by movement? But what about de se interpretation??” “Merge is free? But what about c-selection??” “Long-distance Agree isn’t real? But what about English existential clauses??”[2]I have a hypothesis that the vehemence with which someone will defend a theory or analysis is correlated with how much they struggled to understand it in school. Basically, we’re more likely to … Continue reading These sorts of objections are often tossed out as if the data speaks for itself when really, the thing that makes scientific inquiry so tough is that the data rarely speaks for itself, and when it does, it doesn’t do so clearly.

Take, for instance, the case of English existential clauses like (1) and (2) and how they are used as absolute proof of the existence of Long-Distance Agree.

(1) There ?seems/seem to be several fish in the tank.
(2) There seems/*seem to be a fish in the tank.

In both sentences, the grammatical subject is the expletive there, but the verb agrees with a DP[3]I still think I buy the DP hypothesis, but I’m also intrigued by Chomsky’s recent rejection of it and amused by the reaction to this rejection. that appears to be structurally “lower” in the clause. Therefore, there must be some non-movement way of getting features from a lower object onto a higher object—Long-Distance Agree. This is often presented as the obvious conclusion, the only conclusion, or the simplest conclusion. “Obvious” is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t usually mean “correct”; Norbert Hornstein, in his A Theory of Syntax proposes three alternative analyses to Long-Distance Agree; only “simplest” has legs, although that’s debatable.

Occam’s razor says “entities should not be multiplied without necessity,” and any analysis of (1) and (2) without Long-Distance Agree will have to say that in both cases, the agreeing DP is covertly in subject position. These covert subjects are argued to constitute an unnecessary multiplication of entities, but one could just as easily argue that Long-Distance Agree is an unnecessary entity. What’s more, covert movement and silent elements both have independent arguments in their favour.

Of course, the covert subject analysis of (1) and (2) is not without its flaws. Chief among them, in my opinion, is that it would seem to wrongly predict that (1) and (2) mean the same thing as (3) and (4), respectively.

(3) Three fish seem to be in the tank.
(4) A fish seems to be in the tank.

These sentences differ from (1) and (2) in that they—(3) and (4)—presuppose the existence of three fish or a single fish, while (1) and (2) merely assert it. This contrast is clearest in (5)-(8) which are examples that Chomsky has been using for several decades.

(5) There’s a fly in my soup.
(6) There’s a flaw in my argument.
(7) A fly is in my soup.
(8) *?A flaw is in my argument.

Likewise, Long-Distance Agree has its own problems, some of which I discuss in my latest paper. Indeed, it is vanishingly rare in any field of inquiry—or life itself—to find an unproblematic solution to a problem.

My goal here isn’t to argue that Long-Distance Agree is wrong,[4]Though, I do think it is. but to point out that it’s not a foregone conclusion. In fact, I think that if we listed the hypotheses/theories/notions that most syntacticians took to be (nearly) unquestionable and honestly assessed the arguments in their favours, I doubt that many would turn out to be as robust as they seem. This doesn’t mean that we need to reject every idea that less than 100% solid, just that we should hold on to them a little more loosely. As a rule, we should all carry with us the idea that we could very well be wrong about almost everything. The world’s more interesting that way.

Notes

Notes
1 Outside of syntactic theory too
2 I have a hypothesis that the vehemence with which someone will defend a theory or analysis is correlated with how much they struggled to understand it in school. Basically, we’re more likely to die on a hill if we had to fight to summit that hill. This has some interesting implications that I might get into in a later post.
3 I still think I buy the DP hypothesis, but I’m also intrigued by Chomsky’s recent rejection of it and amused by the reaction to this rejection.
4 Though, I do think it is.
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Interesting post Dan, I enjoyed it!

I don’t think I follow your data point about (3-4) vs. (1-2). My judgement (and, I believe this is also what’s reported) is that (3-4) readily allow readings where the subject takes scope below seem – in fact, it’s difficult to rule this out on the assumption that A-movement allows scope reconstruction. This is pretty easy to see, e.g., “A ghost seems to be in the garden, but ghosts don’t exist” is totally coherent.

What about the following: let’s say that i’m a detective, and i’m investigating a crime scene. There’s evidence of habitation, and I say “Someone seems to have been living here”. This can be true, even if I later find out that the evidence was planted, right? This necessitates a seem > some reading.

I agree with the judgements in (5-8), and they nicely make the point that the existential can’t have the same logical form as the plain copula sentence. I actually have no idea what’s going on here, and “a flaw seems to be in my argument” is just as bad, even though there’s independent evidence that the subject can reconstruct below seem.

To further reinforce the point about A-reconstruction, I can say “someone seems to have left the meeting”, even a context where I don’t believe of any particular person x that x has left the meeting, I just notice that the attendance count has dropped by one.

You can see this clearly in A-movement to subject over modals too: “At most three students are allowed to collaborate” has a salient allowed > at most three reading.

I’m not sure scope is adequate to the task of explaining existential import—which was the phenomenon in question—it seems to me that there are some lexical factors at play here.

Of course, my answer might be tainted by my own biases—lexical factors are exactly the sort of factors that formal semantics is ill-equipped to account for—and whiskey. Who knows?

My judgment is that “Someone seems to have been living here.” and “There seems to have been someone living here.” require different levels of commitment. A detective uttering the latter leaves more leeway for doubt, while one uttering the former is more-or-less certain that there is some person at least responsible for the appearance of habitation.

As for truth conditions, it’s not exactly clear to me. I’ll only add another possible situation: suppose that the signs of habitation weren’t even planted, they came from a raccoon or even one of those freak accidents that only show up in philosophical thought experiments does that change the truth value of the utterances in question?

Yeah, I agree there might be a contrast here, although it’s pretty subtle! In turn I’m probably biased by having been taught that A-movement allows scope reconstruction lol. I’d be tempted to say that there’s some information-structural distinction between indefinites in specTP, vs. some lower position.

I’m totally stumped by (8), since this is even bad with a modal:

(8′) *It might be the case that a flaw is in my argument.

I agree that (8) vs. (6) can’t mean the same thing, I just have no idea what makes (8) bad!!

Just wanted to follow up on this based on my own digging – there’s a squib discussing “presuppositional indefinites” by Kai von Fintel (http://web.mit.edu/fintel/fintel-1998-presupp-indef.pdf), where he argues pretty convincingly following Diesing/Milsark that subjects of individual-level predicates are presuppositional, which encompasses your example (3-4) and (8). The discussion is consistent with your remarks here, although I still don’t understand how this interacts with scope reconstruction. I also don’t understand WHY the existential construction doesn’t give rise to this effect. Very interesting stuff.

Not going to weigh in on the broader issue, but no one is (or at least, no one should be) holding up English there-clauses as the strongest available evidence for long-distance Agree. Have a look at Polinsky & Potsdam 2001 on Tsez, Bhatt 2005 on Hindi, and Etxepare 2006 on “substandard” Basque. Bhatt & Keine have a nice review of key facts and analytical options, here: https://stefankeine.com/papers/LDA_overview.pdf (but do have a look at Polinsky & Potsdam’s paper in particular, as it does a very good job of noting the empirical shortcomings faced by a whole variety of alternative analyses when compared with long-distance Agree).

I know this wasn’t your main point. (Your main point, I take it, is about leaving room for doubt about established (or “established”) results.) But since long-distance Agree is the example you picked, I think it’s worth noting that English is hardly the pièce de résistance here.

I take your point that the English existential is not the strongest evidence for LDA, but I think it’s probably the evidence most available for non-specialists, given the anglo-centric nature of the field. I’ve definitely gotten a variety of whatabout responses to my LDA skepticism—if memory serves someone once objected that you needed LDA for switch-reference, but that might’ve been a response to another of my opinions.

I fully agree with your general statement that things are rarely as set in stone as people saying “but data X” presuppose. However, I do think that in each case you mention, there are more considerations that a single peace of data, and we go through a quick Bayesian estimate and only mention verbally one of the arguments in our head.

Hornstein’s movement control? Besides de se, it gets kinda hard to justify idiomaticity contrasts (Cat seems/appears/is believed to be out of the bag vs. *Cat tries/wants to be out of the bag), especially if you don’t have the literal device of theta-roles (which is an arguable position independently) and thus the ability to count them.
Free Merge? Leads to OT-style filters model where you generate lots of stuff and cut out what didn’t work, which is by itself conceptually (and empirically) implausible – I do happen to have a paper on that, too, but it’s in Russian.
Long-distance Agree… I think the paper Dr. Preminger linked provides a good discussion of that so I won’t comment further.
DP hypothesis? I saw three papers dated 2018 only (plus a 2019 paper, plus a 2006 paper, plus…) with different arguments for it (in particular, many of them are dismantling Bošković’s laughable claim that there are DP-having and DP-less languages but incidentally also providing support for having DP at all), you’d have to build up a lot of work to dismantle that.

There are almost always many reasons to hold one theory or hypothesis and to dismiss another. There were pretty good reasons to think the earth was stationary, and I’m sure there were plenty of people who found claims that we now take as settled truth to be laughable.