This is actually a rather old news article, but I've only just now got around to blogging about it. The lede read "In an emotional interview, Whitney Houston opened up to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey about the pivotal role her mother played in getting the singer back on track." Wait, what? Whose mother? What singer? It's pretty unreasonable to expect that someone wouldn't be able to parse this sentence, but it still strikes me as very odd. First, there's the inevitable ambiguity in "her mother". This is resolved by pragmatics, since we assume that since Whitney Houston is the topic of the passage, "her mother" naturally refers to Houston's mother. However, syntactically this could just as easily be Winfrey's mother. (This is why I maintain we need a proximate/obviative distinction in English: "Whitney Houstonwa opened up to talk-show host Oprah Winfreyi about the pivotal role omotherwa played in getting oma singerwa back on track". When I mix Blackfoot and English I like to call it Blinglish.)
But the most serious "hey wait a minute" moment for me is the use of "the singer" toward the end of the sentence to refer to Whitney Houston. I would think that strictly speaking, this sentence should be ungrammatical by pretty much any version of the binding theory you adopt (classic GB, R&R, or Ken Safir's FTIP). This has to to with reference, which I think is captured nicely by Ken Safir's version of binding. Once we've established the context with an R-expression (referring expression, i.e., any noun phrase that's not a pronoun or an anaphor), we need to use the most dependent form for each successive instance of a coreferent NP. "Her mother" is fine, but it would be weird to say "Whitney Houston's mother"; that's why we have pronouncs. And "the singer" just seems really odd to me. I would expect "in getting her back on track". I assume they reverted back to an R-expression for Houston because it had been so long since the initial mention, but it's still very marked for me, perhaps even ungrammatical.
This is because you can't have an R-expression coindexed with a previous R-expression. If we say "Whitney Houston picked up the singer's clothes at the dry cleaner's", we want to ask "Wait, whose clothes did she pick up?" This violates whatever theory of binding you subscribe to, unequivocally. Luckily, actual language use is much more fluid, and clearly that was an acceptable sentence to someone, again, probably because of the distance between the two expressions, but I don't have to like it.
Jerome Stueart interview (pt. 3)
1 year ago