Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on June 9, 2007

Driving around our neighborhoods, I see graduation banners for the class of 2007 posted in front yards here and there. This year, I’m seeing an added detail: In addition to a message like, “Congratulations, Nicole! 2007,” there will be a line indicating what college the graduate will be attending: “OSU bound!” I haven’t seen any that say, “Taking a year off!”, even though I read a story in the paper some months ago with that said in the opening paragraph:

More students are taking a year off before going straight to college.

I remembered the article because that sentence puzzled me. If a student takes a year off, and then goes to college, I reasoned, the student is not going straight to college.

Well, so what? When Belloq says to Indiana Jones,

Please, sit down before you fall down.

he is not requesting that Indy first sit, and then fall. When your mother says,

You’d better stop doing that before you go blind.

the idea is not to stop and then go blind, but to stop and not go blind (perhaps just ending up having to wear glasses).

Semanticists have a name for this phenomenon: non-veridical before. A fair bit has been written on how and when the non-veridical readings arise. For a recent and well-written piece that also gives a good summary of previous work on the topic, read this article by David Beaver and Cleo Condoravdi.

In spite of all that, the sentence in the newspaper article still sounded wrong to me. Why? Let’s look at some phrases with veridical before:

Places to see before you die.

Seeing these places won’t prevent your eventual death. The idea is to see these places sometime prior to your death, after which it becomes considerably more difficult to do so.

Employees must wash hands before returning to work.

Washing your hands will not get you out of returning to work — at least, not for any job I can think of. The message here is that any act of returning to work must occur after a washing of hands.

Now the question is what makes the veridical before examples different from the non-veridical before examples, and how the “straight to college” example fails to fit this pattern. Of course, there’s context, but I figured that couldn’t be the whole story, since context wasn’t enough to give a pass to the “straight to college” example. So what else is there?

The non-veridical examples I gave involved commands, or at least a deontic modal (i.e., a modal expressing some degree of necessity). Maybe that was significant. But there’s also a deontic must in the veridical “wash hands” example. And you can also get non-veridical before in plain old declaratives. To use one of Beaver and Condoravdi’s examples, there’s On Dec. 9, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the hand count before it was completed.

I next noticed that the non-veridical examples both had finite (i.e. tensed) forms of the verb following before — specifically, the present tense fall and go. The veridical examples had a finite form (die) and a nonfinite one (the gerund returning). So maybe before with a finite verb could allow veridical or non-veridical readings, according to context, while before with a nonfinite verb could only be veridical.

I tested the hypothesis, and it seemed to work. Please, sit down before falling down sounds decidedly unidiomatic, possibly because of what contextually seems to be a non-veridical meaning cast in an exclusively veridical construction. The same with You’d better stop doing that before going blind. And what about if I reworded the hand-washing example with a finite verb? Would I be able to get a non-veridical reading? Employees must wash hands before they return to work. I just couldn’t tell at this point.

But the part about before with a nonfinite verb being exclusively veridical seemed to work pretty well, so I tested it out on my wife. She agreed that Stop before you go blind doesn’t mean that you’re going to go blind in any case, but she had the same judgment for Stop before going blind. Non-veridical in both cases. The same for Sit down before {you fall / falling} down. I explained how she’d just falsified my hypothesis, and she gave her take on the situation: that it was all about context. If the context was such that the before part was something that was or could be avoided by the other part of the sentence being true or fulfilled, you got the non-veridical reading; otherwise, you didn’t. And in fact, that’s the basic account that Beaver and Condoravdi give, though spelled out more formally.

So if my wife could get non-veridical before with nonfinite verbs, she ought to be just fine with the sentence that got me on this whole train of thought, the “straight to college” example. I ran it by her.

To her, it sounds just fine. How does it sound to you?


Thanks for the comments. After reading Bridget’s comment, I realized I’d forgotten to do the very basic test of rephrasing the “straight to college” sentence with a finite verb to see if it sounded any better. It doesn’t: More students are taking a year off before they go straight to college sounds, if anything, even worse. So the finite/nonfinite hypothesis is pretty much trashed, at least as far as my own grammar goes — though of course there may be variation among speakers.

However, after reading Glen’s (in restrospect obvious) hypothesis in his comment, I’ve taken a closer look at Beaver and Condoravdi’s paper, and found that their analysis predicts that the “straight to college” sentence will be anomalous for the reason Glen proposes. The idea is this: A before B is true if and only if some point in time t when A is true precedes the earliest time at which B is true. B&C generalize the meaning of earliest to refer to the earliest time when B is true not only in the world which A before B is talking about, but also all the possible worlds that are identical to this world up to time t and thereafter are “reasonably probable given the course of events up to t.”

So now suppose we try to interpret the sentence veridically. In that case, we assume that B (i.e., going straight to college) actually happens. In that case, the earliest point at which it is true is also be the earliest point at which A (i.e., taking a year off) is true, and is not preceded by it.

With the veridical reading ruled out, we try to interpret the sentence non-veridically. B doesn’t occur in the actual world, but we are also considering the reasonably probable alternative worlds, so the earliest point at which B is true is still defined. Unfortunately, it’s still the same time as the earliest time at which A is true, just like before, and is not preceded by it.

Since neither a veridical nor a non-veridical reading is true, the sentence sounds like a contradiction. Take out the straight, though, and a regular, veridical reading is possible.


6 Responses to “Veridical-Minded”

  1. Jangari said

    I’m still puzzled by the fact that people advertise their graduation and subsequent tertiary plans with signs in their front yards! Is this common in those wacky States of yours?!

  2. Bridget said

    I think I agree with your hypothesis: non-veridical only with a tensed verb. “Employees must wash hands before they return to work” is also fine for me, just not as economical.

  3. Glen said

    Okay, I haven’t gone through all the logic of testing the hypothesis, but it seems to me that the non-veridical constructions all deal with events (or non-events) that must take place in sequence. “Sit down before you fall down” indicates that if Indy keeps standing, he will *eventually* fall down. “You’d better stop doing that before you go blind” indicates that if you keep doing that, you will *eventually* go blind.

    So to get a non-veridical meaning from “More students are taking a year off before going straight to college,” it would have to be the case that students who don’t take a year off will *eventually* go straight to college. But that doesn’t make sequential sense. Taking a year off and going straight to college are alternative uses of the *same* period of time (the year after high school graduation). That, I think, is why the sentence sounds wrong. But if you remove the word “straight,” the problem goes away, because then it’s possible for these events (taking a year off, going to college) to occur in sequence.

    So I think I would articulate the rule as follows: for veridical constructions, the events may in question can be in sequence or in tandem, but for non-veridical constructions the events in question must be in sequence. Does that work?

  4. Jangari said

    I’d say that sooner similarly has a non-veridical use, as in most students would sooner take a year off than go straight to college, which sounds absolutely fine to me, and seems to retain this simultaneity of the two alternatives.

  5. Neal said

    It seems to me that the custom of graduation banners is somewhat new: I never got one, and as far as I know my peers didn’t. But I know how insidious the recency illusion can be, so I won’t make such an assertion.

    I’d say that sooner has been completely grammaticalized to be a synonym for rather, at least in my grammar (though to be sure, it’s only in my passive vocabulary, not my active one). But nonveridical uses may well have contributed to the grammaticalization. In fact, maybe that’s what’s going on with before, with the nonveridical usage giving rise to a more general meaning of “instead of” or “to avoid”.

  6. Ran said

    This comment is way late, but here goes:

    As I see it, “A before B” can mean any of three things: “A and B, with A starting earlier” (the veridical sense); “A in order to prevent B” (the counterfactual, non-veridical sense); “A in case B” (the non-committal sense). The first and third are impossible here; the author certainly means that the students aren’t going straight to college. The second is also impossible; A here is a replacement for B, a synonym for not-B, so it doesn’t make sense to say that A somehow prevents B. Taking a year off doesn’t prevent you from going straight to college, it’s just something you do instead. In this case, I think the author accidentally blended “More students are taking a year off instead of going straight to college” with “More students are taking a year off before going to college” during the editing process.

    Incidentally, in most cases I agree that a non-finite clause points more strongly to a veridical reading than a finite clause does (though it is neither necessary nor sufficient).

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