Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Anaphoric Epithets Gone Wrong

Posted by Neal on August 1, 2005

Last year, voters in Columbus approved a ban on indoor smoking in public places. Today, an article in the Columbus Dispatch talks about the economic effects the ban has had on bars, including the fact that a number of bars are building patios for smokers. For example,

Dillinger’s sometimes hands out fliers at Broad and High streets reminding people [that] the restaurant on the 16th floor of the LeVeque Tower has a patio just for smokers.

When I read this, I had to ask myself, “Exactly why is this Dillinger’s establishment going to so much trouble to advertise some restaurant on the 16th floor of the LeVeque Tower?” After a few seconds, the sheer weight of the pragmatics forced me to conclude that the relationship between Dillinger’s and the 16th floor restaurant was, in fact, the identity relationship. Dillinger’s and the restaurant must be one and the same.

Yeah, I figured it out, no thanks to the writers and editors of the story. Suppose I said something like this:

I saw Tom, and told him he couldn’t smoke indoors.

The personal pronoun him can refer back to Tom with no problem at all; as syntacticians put it, him is anaphoric. (As opposed to deictic, which is what him would be if it referred to someone other than Tom.) Now suppose I said something like,

I saw Tom, and told the bastard he couldn’t smoke indoors.

Now the bastard is working just like the pronoun him did last time, anaphorically referring to Tom. This kind of usage of a definite description is known as an anaphoric epithet (though I just tend to think of it as “bastard anaphora,” since the bastard is by far the example of choice in syntactic papers, and it fits in so well with donkey anaphora and booger anaphora). [Update: The booger anaphora link is dead. Rosanne of the now-defunct X-Bar blog coined the term to refer to the it in sentences such as He picked his nose and at it.]

But anaphoric epithets and anaphoric pronouns don’t always behave the same way. For example, in the following pair of sentences, he can still refer to Tom, but the bastard can only refer to someone else.

Tom said he was going out for a smoke.
Tom said the bastard was going out for a smoke.

I had a hard time equating Dillinger’s with the 16th floor restaurant for the same reason that Tom can’t be the bastard in that last example sentence: Anaphoric epithets just don’t work that way. I think the writers were looking for a place to squeeze in the identifying information for Dillinger’s for the readers who’d never heard of it, and made a bad choice.

4 Responses to “Anaphoric Epithets Gone Wrong”

  1. Russell said

    I agree – it’s work-outable, but it takes a couple of readings. Bad for a newspaper column.

    Then again, they use this all the time for intersententially to get maximal information load. E.g., “Bistro Jack has recently decided to… . The 16th-floor restaurant was unable to ….”

  2. Neal said

    Yeah, anaphoric epithets do work in examples like yours. Just try it with our canonical ‘the bastard’: ‘Tom has decided to…. The bastard was unable to….’ But they still don’t work in the example I was highlighting.

  3. Julian said

    It would’ve been solved by setting off the “on the 16th…tower” part with commas, or maybe “…,which is on the…tower,”

    And it’s more than a little depressing to see that even a a passing mention of an outside patio to accomodate smokers in a post on another topic is enough to provoke a rant from some pathetic bluenose.–>

  4. All they need to do is change ‘the’ to ‘their’. Perhaps it was simply a typo. Works in BrE, but perhaps Dillinger’s has to be ‘it’ in AmE.

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