Struck by a duck-rabbit effect

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I was just reading along in the NYT today but had to pause at this sentence:

Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.

I found myself puzzling over whether "him" was all right there or whether I wanted "himself", and even more puzzled that I was having trouble deciding. I would try out one, then the other, and the sentence kept shape-shifting on me. I didn't "feel" any particular ambiguity, and yet either choice would sound bad to me one second and good the next. Puzzled. So I had to back up and think about "deep structure". (Whether anyone believes in such a notion anymore or not, I still find it useful for thinking about constructions. Somebody, maybe Paul Kiparsky, found a slim 19th century school grammar book that explained a lot of constructions in terms of "transformations". (I believe it was published in Philadelphia, so we wondered if there had been a copy in Zellig Harris's family.))

And then I could see where the duck-rabbit perceptual effect was coming from. It's connected to the difference between two perfectly good and nearly equivalent 'expansions' or 'sources' of the infinitival expression:  (a) Bankruptcy laws shielded him from personal losses; (b) Mr. Trump shielded himself from personal losses (with/by using bankruptcy laws). [Cf. the discussion of Lakoff's derivation of "Seymour cut the salami with a knife" from something closer to "Seymour used a knife to cut the salami" in Culicover and Jackendoff's Simpler Syntax. I'm not suggesting there's any such syntactic connection, just noting that the paraphrase relation has been noted for at least 50 years or so.]

I think it's because those two are (at least in context) so nearly equivalent that it didn't feel like a normal ambiguity but like some strange shimmering instability in a single structure. I felt better as soon as I could see that there really must be two structures.

It's not hard to find examples where just one or the other would work.

(1) He used his wife to stand in for him at the closing. (In this case, himself wouldn't actually be ungrammatical, but it would correspond to the incoherent 'He stood in for himself with/by using his wife'.)

(2) He used every trick in the book to extricate himself from that debt. (And similarly here, him wouldn't be ungrammatical, but it would correspond to the highly improbable interpretation 'Every trick in the book extricated him from that debt'.)

OK. I'm not even trying to remember all I ever read or thought such infinitivals — though that would take me back nostalgically to the years when Emmon was writing about purpose clauses and control (1982) and when our Charlie Jones was writing his dissertation on the syntax and thematics of infinitival adjuncts with Emmon as his dissertation chair (1985). I'm just relieved to find a nice normal ambiguity there.

I only posted about it because the duck-rabbit effect that particular example induced in me was so striking and puzzling at first. And I don't have any actual explanation for the effect — I'm guessing it's a combination of two factors — (i) the structural ambiguity that we can easily convince ourselves is there doesn't yield any noticeable semantic ambiguity in this case, and I think we can explain that easily enough (in that the source for the version with the instrumental role being the grammatical subject of shield (the laws shield him) implicates the presence of an agent, which is most naturally understood as the same as the agent of the higher verb, and that gets you the same result as the source where the agent is the subject). And (ii) all we see is the subjectless infinitival, and there isn't any evident surface structural ambiguity, so you can't find the source of the ambiguity unless you start playing linguist.

No theoretical conclusions that I can see. But I'm retired now, so I no longer feel constrained to write only about things that are Interesting with a capital I, as I had learned to feel in graduate school.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

    But wouldn't it have to be "Seymour used the knife to cut himself"? "Him" sounds very wrong there at least to my native-speaker ear. Or if there's something funny about "cut," how about "Seymour used the knife to protect himself from robbers," where "him" sounds equally wrong to me, yet the overall structure seems quite parallel to the NYT op-ed's sentence. Maybe it's incompletely parallel because it would be slightly weirder to say "The knife protected him from robbers," whereas "bankruptcy law" is easier to anthropomorphize? I guess I don't find the structure equivocal between the (a) and (b) options because the whole point of the sentence in context is to *blame* Trump for his use of the bankruptcy laws, rather than just treating him as the morally neutral-at-worst object of their predictable application. One semantic function of reflexive pronouns like "himself" is to emphasize the identity of the actor and the acted-upon, and it seems to me that it is that identity that the writer is trying to emphasize. (I should perhaps note that I have the disadvantage of knowing enough about the subject matter of the sentence to find it substantively misleading as phrased, which may be interfering with my ability to experience the duck-rabbit effect. But that's why I tried to construct parallel examples, which likewise failed to elicit a duck-rabbit effect from me.)

  2. Peter said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    No idea why, but in the Trump example, changing "bankruptcy laws" to "bankruptcy law" makes "him" sound completely wrong, whereas with the plural it seems either could work.

  3. ===Dan said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 6:34 pm

    To my ear, only "himself" seems just right.

    "… bankruptcy laws, WHICH shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer" sounds right to me.

  4. leoboiko said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    I hope this isn't too off-topic, but I've been intrigued by Simpler Syntax for some time now, & before tackling it fully, I'd enjoy hearing opinions about the book.

  5. Brett said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:22 pm

    I think it's a bracketing issue. There are two readings:

    Mr. Trump has used (bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer).
    Mr. Trump has used (bankruptcy laws) to shield himself from personal losses while his investors suffer.

    As Peter noted, using "him" sounds much worse with the mass noun phrase "bankruptcy law," and in this case, the first bracketing seems to be unavailable.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

    I agree with "himself" in this case; the use of "him" had me backtracking to find the antecedent.

    As a side note, MS Word's spell and grammar checker doesn't like reflexive pronouns; it flags every use and wants to change them all.

  7. Barbara Partee said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer – I think that yes it's because 'knife' is a more prototypical instrument, harder to anthropomorphize as agent. You can indeed say 'the knife cut him', but it remains less agent-like than 'the bankruptcy laws shielded him'. I think getting the duck-rabbit effect may require a perfect storm of factors, and your knowing too much about the subject matter may make it harder for you to get it — though I think I also know the relevant stuff but I still got it. I think I initially wondered if it shouldn't be 'himself' because I saw him really wielding those laws as one wields a knife.
    Here might be another relevant contrasting pair:
    1' Seymour used the knife to cut himself.
    2' Seymour used his wife to nurse him back to health.

    I haven't tried to construct another example that might have the duck-rabbit effect. Not only might they be rare, but I doubt I could do it to myself — like you can't tickle yourself. I would be constructing them too consciously.

  8. Barbara Partee said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

    @ Brett — maybe, but I don't think so. Even though I agree that 'bankruptcy laws' must be the understood subject when the pronoun is 'him', I don't think it's because the infinitive then is a modifier of the noun. (But this kind of issue is why there's a lot of literature on the topic.) One way to test that hypothesis is to use some uniquely referential noun phrase so that a restrictive modifier would be semantically anomalous; and you can, and the sentence is still OK:
    Trump used Chapter 711 to shield him/ himself from personal losses.
    Both pronouns still possible, same difference as before, but although an infinitival modifier is possible in an expression like "bankruptcy laws to shield the rich", it's not possible in "*Chapter 711 to shield the rich".

  9. Brett said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    @Barbara Partee: Actually, I find

    ?Trump used Chapter 711 to shield him from personal losses.

    possibly ungrammatical. The first time I read it, it seemed clearly wrong, although after repeating it a few times it seemed a little less bad. At this point, my parser is too primed to get a good reading, and so I should just go to bed.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 9:20 pm

    FWIW, I interpret "Seymour used his wife to nurse him back to health" as requiring/presupposing an other-than-Seymour male antecedent mentioned earlier in the discourse and/or otherwise obvious from context, e.g. "After Ludwig got malaria, Seymour used his wife [probably Ludwig's wife, but admittedly ambiguous] to nurse him [unequivocally Ludwig] back to health." So I may just have the line as to where "him" might be acceptable as an alternative drawn in a different place than Barbara Partee. Which is not to privilege my intuitions or idiolect over hers, just to report the difference in reactions to the same example sentences.

  11. Noscitur a sociis said,

    July 6, 2016 @ 10:16 pm

    I don't see it. I think I can browbeat myself into accepting "him", but I don't feel great about it. I have been unable to generate any qualms about using "himself".

  12. rosie said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 1:32 am

    I think English grammar supports both "him" and "himself".

    "Mr. Trump used bankruptcy laws to shield him from losses." means much the same as "Mr. Trump used bankruptcy laws, so that those laws would shield him from losses."

    "Mr. Trump used bankruptcy laws to shield himself from losses." means much the same as "Mr. Trump shielded himself from losses, and used bankruptcy laws to do so."

    If it's OK for laws to be an agent, the first reading works.

    I searched for similar constructs with the words "to protect … from" in BYU/BNC. If the person does something protective, the pronoun is reflexive, whether or not the verb denotes an action by that person

    1a. the accused had a sheathknife to protect himself from a person
    1b. [Turing] cycle[d] to work wearing an army gas-mask to protect himself from the pollen
    1c. Teresa … put up her arms to protect herself from what she believed would be an attack.

    but if the sentence says a thing or another person did the protecting, it's "him"

    2a. he had to be surrounded by bodyguards to protect him from germs
    2b. He had a thin cardigan over his shoulders to protect him from the breeze.

    I feel that 2b also works with "himself", but then the sentence's point would be that the wearer did something, whereas the writer's point is that the wearer passively received protection.

  13. ardj said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    I definitely don't understand American English in spite of occasional forays into the NYT, but to my (UK) ear:
    "Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer" says
    "Mr Trump used bankruptcy laws to shield some other male previously mentioned from personal losses while his (ambiguous – other male's or possibly Mr Trump's) investors suffer"

  14. David L said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    I have no insight into the grammar, but the original Trump sentence with 'him' sounds flat wrong to my ear (by wrong I just mean not natural English). It makes me want to know what the previous sentence was, so I could find out who this 'him' is that Trump is protecting from bankruptcy.

    On the other hand, I have the duck-rabbit problem with rosie's 2b above — at first I thought it really ought to be 'himself,' but then I decided 'him' was OK too, but not quite as natural.

  15. Shelagh K said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    Native speaker of Canadian English (and linguist) here, and I agree 100% with ardj. Using "him" in the sentence at issue can only, to my ear, mean a third party is being referred to.

  16. tsts said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 9:42 am

    I think @ardj is exactly right. That is, the right choice depends on the context, and in particular on the previous sentence. If the previous sentence had talked, say, about a friend of Trump, then this sentence with "him" would strongly suggest to me that the friend is being protected by Mr. Trump using bankruptcy law. If it is Mr. Trump who is protecting himself, then "himself" is clearly the better choice. Even if there is no previous sentence talking about someone else.

    Note I am not talking about what is grammatical, but one choice is clearly better than the other here, depending on context. In fact, this seems fairly obvious to me, so I am surprised about the long discussion.

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Yes, that's what I meant when I said I went "backtracking for an antecedent," but you put it better :)

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    Definitely "himself" for me too, but I'm a bit surprised that the boundary for changing it to a "that" clause is different. I could say "Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws that shield him from personal losses." But to adapt rosie's 1a, I couldn't say *"the accused had a sheathknife that protected him from a person". Um, I think I couldn't.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    To Jerry Friedman's point, I think that's in part because it's semantically odd to think of a knife "passively" protecting someone w/o another agent doing *something* with it. If you said "The homeowner had a burglar alarm that protected him from intruders" I don't think you'd have the same issue, would you?

    OTOH, you don't need that active a verb in a different construction. E.g. "he carried a knife to protect himself from potential muggers" or "he kept a knife under the counter to protect himself from robbers" works, even though carrying/keeping is only the precondition to some more active use of the knife (even if only displaying it meaningfully) that would be necessary for the protective function to be implemented.

  20. Guy said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    If we're polling, to me it has to be "himself" and "him" is not possible with the attended meaning. I'm not getting any duck-rabbit effect.


    For me, the bracketing where the infinitival is part of the noun phrase is only possible if the bankruptcy laws exist for the purpose of shielding him, that is, if it would make sense to say that that was their purpose in a more-or-less contextless sense. But they exist for entirely Trump-unrelated reasons, and he's simply using them to shield himself.

  21. ardj said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    I think there is something in what @Rosie says, about the implied or overt subject of the infinitive: and it clarifies Barbara Partee’s points about the presence of an agent and ‘understood subject’. However I disagree with @Barbara Partee’s comment (at 8.36pm, 7jul16) about him in “used Chapter 711 to shield him” – that “him” has to refer to some other “him” than Trump. The restrictive modifier argument, if I have understood it, does not work. What on earth is wrong with “he used Chapter 711 to shield the rich” ? Would you decry “The president used his veto to shield the poor” (e.g. from the ravages of something or other) ?

    But Rosie does not follow the logic of her later argument when she begins by saying “to shield him from losses” is acceptable: there is no effective semantic or pragmatic difference between the two re-writes she offers, so they cannot be said to differentiate between the sentences. The point is that in both cases Mr Trump is doing the using. Thus if you re-wrote 2a. as “he used bodyguards to protect him from germs”, it would have to read “protect himself”, otherwise he is protecting someone else from germs

    And again I am not sure I agree with @J.W.Brewer (1.14pm, 7jul16) about improbable passive protection by blade: surely you rebut yourself with your example "he carried a knife to protect himself from potential muggers" – I can see no difference between your protection from potential muggers and “a person” in Rosie’s 1a. What I have difficulty with in 1a is this undefined “person”: it surely ought to continue along the lines of “a person who had threatened him” or “a person, as yet unknown to him, but who he feared would materialize out of the brooding mist which hung over this strange quarter”, and so forth.

    @Jerry Friedman: a very interesting point about ‘that” – but I think the difficulty with 1a is this undefined person: after all you would not say *"the accused had a sheathknife that protected himself from a person"..

    @Ralph Hickok – thanks, but I was just repeating you, really, but from further away.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    I find Rosie's original 1a more grammatical that Jerry Friedman's modification of it, which is what I was reacting to. Maybe the difference is that "to protect" is consistent with "ok it's not currently engaged in its protective function but easily could be used for that in the future if occasion arose," while "that protected" requires the protective function to have already been actualized? Although I agree both are weird because of the odd-without-context use of "person." But this was originally a British corpus hit, I think, so maybe it sounds less odd within the jargonish way British lawyers or judges or cops talk?

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

    As a data point against ardj, I'm also BrE but have the full duck-rabbit effect. The version with him is absolutely fine for me, and Prof Partee's analysis seems convincing.

  24. Brett said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

    @Guy: What you describe is certainly the pragmatically default reading of that bracketing, but I don't find it to be the sole acceptable one.

  25. Ray said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 8:04 pm

    to my ears, the nyt writer missed the opportunity to use "himself" to highlight the distinction between mr. trump and "his investors", since the point of the opinion piece was most likely about trump's narcissistic, megalomaniac selfishness which renders him unqualified for public office, rather than about how trump understands that any win/lose in his business ventures is as much about his ability to keep things running as it is about his investors, which would render him as being "one of us," as a public servant who believes "I'm with you."

    obliging smiley :-) and… submit comment!

  26. TR said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    For me (AmEng) the original sentence is fine, to the extent that on first reading it I assumed that what gave Barbara pause was the present-tense "suffer".

  27. DaveK said,

    July 7, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

    For me, the sentence is only clear because there's no referent for him other than "Mr. Trump".
    If it were "Trump's lawyer used bankruptcy law to shield him from personal losses" or "Trump's lawyer used bankruptcy law to shield himself from personal losses", there would be no ambiguity.

    He used his wife to stand in for him at the closing. (In this case, himself wouldn't actually be ungrammatical, but it would correspond to the incoherent 'He stood in for himself with/by using his wife'.)
    Actually, wouldn't this correspond to "His wife stood in for him at the closing"? No reflexive because his wife is the one performing the action.

  28. Keith said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 4:51 am

    We don't have a preceding paragraph, just this little snippet.
    Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.
    For me, if this is the whole of the text, then either him or himself sounds correct.

    But imagine that there is a preceding paragraph mentioning the Tooth Fairy. Now, stating that Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses leads me to believe that Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield the Tooth Fairy from personal losses.

    In other words, I suppose I am saying that when only one person is mentioned then there is no need for an explicit reflexive pronoun. The subject (or agent, whatever term we use for the person doing the protecting

  29. Keith said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 4:56 am

    oops, I accidentally hit the Send button before finishing…

    … whereas if there is the possibility that the protection could have been afforded to another person mentioned in the story, then we need to might need to use the reflexive pronoun to resolve the ambiguity.

  30. ardj said,

    July 8, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: I cannot disagree with how it seems to you, so I won’t, even though I think you are very wrong to think in this way. In the (1989+1997) OED under 'him', there are some reflexive uses, of which the most relevant is the first.

    II.4 refl. = himself, to himself (= Lat. sibi, se, Ger. sich) a. dat. With trans. vb., or objective with prep. (Still in current use, when not ambiguous)

    The last two citations for this usage are: 1716 Addison: By this means he reconciled to him the minds of his subjects; Mod. He put the thought from him. He will take it with him in the carriage.

    Searching for Mod in the Bibliography gives a range of options from the attractive (in this context) 'Model steam engines' through publications of the Modern Language Association of America to 'Modern Times' 1785. But no Mod. Is it you ?

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