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LINGUIST List 19.1264

Mon Apr 14 2008

Sum: Deictic Reading of an Embedded Tense

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        1.    Tero Tulenheimo, Deictic Reading of an Embedded Tense

Message 1: Deictic Reading of an Embedded Tense
Date: 11-Apr-2008
From: Tero Tulenheimo <tero.tulenheimohelsinki.fi>
Subject: Deictic Reading of an Embedded Tense
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Please Note: Summaries are typically a compilation of responses to a Query, 
but the summary that follows is, this time, regarding a Discussion item,
which you can read at:

Dear all,

In this posting I wish to summarize the responses I received to my query
19.609 (''Tense interactions: uniform vs. non-uniform?''). Further, I'd
wish to indicate what puzzles me in these responses in view of certain
discussions in the literature [1, 2, 3, 4]. I will reformulate the main
question of my previous query in a later posting. I'm grateful to Elena
Bashir (EB), Julian Bradfield (JB), Damien Hall (DH) and Mike Maxwell (MM)
for their responses. (The summary represents my understanding of the
responses, and may not represent the views of the people to whom they are


My main question was (unfortunately, as it turned out) phrased by reference
to the sentences

(1) John thought that Harry will leave,
(2) John forgot that Mary will come,
(3) Mary believed that Harry will be late.

(Unfortunately, since the focus of my original query moved to an unintended
direction.) As the question was formulated, a prerequisite was finding out
whether (1 - 3) are grammatical. Everyone who responded was a native
speaker. Some considered these sentences plainly ungrammatical, others
expressed reservations. Everyone agreed that what (1 - 3) attempt to
express is best expressed in standard English by replacing ''will'' by
''would'': no one suggested that these sentences could have a reading
expressing something different from the result of such substitution. (In
particular, only one person, and with much hesitation, was prepared to
interpret the embedded ''will'' deictically in a suitable context; still
this person said he would not personally go for using ''will'' in that way.)

DH said that in the UK, (1 - 3) would definitely be ungrammatical but, in
his judgment, in the US sentences like (1 - 3) are sometimes or even often
considered grammatical. JB said the sentences are ungrammatical in standard
English but might not be considered ungrammatical in suitable contexts. And
MM said he would not consider the sentences strictly ungrammatical, while
he still would not choose to use such sentences, but would replace ''will''
by ''would'' instead.

EB characterized the need for replacing ''will'' by ''would'' by saying
that in English ''the reported perceived event is treated as though the
perceiver shares the same temporal perspective as the reporter,'' pointing
out that in other languages, e.g. Urdu, ''the action in the embedded clause
is viewed from the temporal stance of the perceiver at the time of
perception''; this would then fit the pattern of (1 - 3), insofar as the
syntax is concerned. That is, what in English is expressed by the
grammatical sentence

(1a) John thought that Harry would leave,

would be expressed in Urdu by a sentence where there indeed appears the
equivalent of ''will leave'' in the embedded clause. The action in the
embedded clause (leaving) is viewed from the perspective of the perceiver
(John) at the time of his perception (thinking): John would have used the
equivalent of ''Harry will leave'' to express what he then thought.

It may be worth pointing out that this analysis of (1) is diametrically
opposed to the analysis attempting to construe ''will'' deictically. For,
the reading of (1) construing ''will'' deictically, uttered at t_0, would
state that what John thought in the past was that Harry leaves after t_0.
Hence (or so it seems) it is the person perceiving who happened to have,
according to the report (1), the rather strangely specified belief in the
past that there is a time (t_1) later than that of reporting (t_0) such
that John leaves at t_1. The embedded clause is not viewed from the
temporal stance of the perceiver at the time of perception, but the content
of the perception is determined relative to the temporal stance of the


But can sentences such as (1 - 3) actually carry a reading where ''will''
-- or more generally, the tense of the embedded clause -- appears as
deictic? The fact that no one who replied to my query found these sentences
unproblematically grammatical seems to me to suggest that there is no such
uncontroversial reading. Yet in the literature several authors seem to take
it for granted that there is one. Here is a list of sentences discussed in
the literature and claimed to have a reading (apparently unproblematic, for
that matter) which would be destroyed by turning ''will'' into ''would'' or
''is'' into ''was'' [or ''ran'' into ''had run'' in (3.4)]. Sentence of the
form (x.n) is from the reference [x]:

(1.1) John said that he will leave tomorrow (p. 115)
(1.2) John said that he will leave before Jane returns (ibid.)
(1.3) John said that he is ill (ibid.)

(2.1) John heard that Mary is pregnant (p. 636)
(2.2) We found out that John loves Mary (ibid.)

(3.1) John said that Harry will leave (p. 120)

(3.2) John said that Harry is leaving (ibid.)

(3.3) John heard that Mary is pregnant (ibid.)

(3.4) John thought that Harry ran (ibid.)

(4.1) It was predicted that the Messiah will come (p. 496)

Comrie [1:114-5] says e.g. of (1.3) that it is applicable when what John
said is considered by the reporter to still have relevance/continued
validity. He explains (1.2) by saying it has the implication that John's
leaving and Jane's return are possible future events.

Enç [2:636] says of (2.1) that unlike ''John heard that Mary was
pregnant'', the sentence (2.1) must be interpreted evaluating ''is''
relative to the time of utterance. She argues that via this analysis
Comrie's idea of 'present relevance' can be made more precise.

Hornstein explains (3:121) that in all of (3.1 - 3.4), the event time of
the embedded clause is interpreted temporally relative to the utterance
whereby these sentences have an interpretation altogether different
from the sentences with ''would'' in place of ''will'' (in which ''would''
appears in an embedded clause with a sequence-of-tense reading). Hornstein
is very explicit about his interpretation. He goes so far as to say e.g.:
''[W]hat John heard was that Mary was with child at the moment of utterance
of [(3.3)] as a whole. If John's information is accurate, then Mary is
still pregnant.''

Kamp & Reyle [4:497] explain that unlike the sentence ''It was predicted
that the Messiah would come,'' sentence (4.1) reports a past prediction
about an event lying in the future of the time at which (4.1) is asserted,
not about an event that lies in the future of the time of the prediction
but might have taken place before the time of assertion.

As to truth-conditions of sentences with deictically interpreted embedded
tense, MM pointed out to me in his response to me that (4.1) ''makes it
sound like the prediction, which was made let's say in 500 BC, was that the
Messiah would come after the year 2008 AD. That's of course a possible
prediction, just rather odd.''
Perhaps such an odd character of the truth-condition is the reason why the
suggestion, according to which there is a systematic possibility (or even
necessity) of deictically interpreting a suitable embedded tense (such as
that of ''is'' or ''will''), does not gain spontaneous support among native

Apparently, it seems to me, the best way of making sense of the
availability of such systematic readings is to say that they arise from the
utterer maximizing the information given by his/her report, by
appropriately relating the event time of the embedded clause to the time of
utterance. (Hence if the utterer X wishes to convey that in past, John said
''Harry will leave'' and X furthermore is aware that Harry hasn't left as
yet, then by uttering (3.1) with ''will'' interpreted deictically, X states
what in the circumstances of the utterance more accurately describes what
John said than would the utterance of the sentence ''John said that Harry
would leave''; the expression of the truth-condition is so to say updated.)

Given that various linguists have apparently taken deictic reading of an
embedded tense as being a genuinely possible reading -- and accordingly,
have not considered (1.1 - 4.1) as unsuccessful attempts at stating what
rather should be stated using a form adapted to sequence-of-tense -- I'm
puzzled by the fact that no one who responded to my query naturally
considered the deictic reading of the relevant sentences but rather chose
to propose replacing ''will'' by ''would.'' Not being a native speaker, I'm
not able to properly figure out what is at stake. I'd be grateful for any

Kind regards,
Tero Tulenheimo
University of Helsinki

[1] B. Comrie: Tense, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
[2] M. Enç: ''Anchoring Conditions for Tense,'' Ling. Inq. 18(4):633-657, 1987.
[3] N. Hornstein: As Time Goes By. Tense and Universal Grammar, The MIT
Press, 1990.
[4] H. Kamp & U. Reyle: From Discourse to Logic, Part 2, Kluwer, 1993.

Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics

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