Geoff Pullum at Language Log has propounded an interesting conundrum, which I will repeat here both to propose my own (probably simplistic) solution and to remedy the deplorably renewed lack of comment function at the aforementioned group weblog. Geoff quotes the following sentence from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (in context here):
“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or if you’d like it put more simply— ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’ “
Geoff’s question is whether the Dutchess’s simplified/expanded sentence is grammatical; he says “After four or five careful attempts to make a judgment on this, I find I still can’t decide.”
I approach it as I used to approach math problems in my long-ago days as a math major, namely by stripping away extraneous material. The phrase “or might have been” is grammatically extraneous; the two occurrences of “not otherwise than” are logically extraneous, since “Be not otherwise than what you are” is logically equivalent to “Be what you are.” We are left with “Never imagine yourself to be what it might appear to others that what you were was what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.” Now, “Never imagine yourself to be…” requires a nominal construction to follow it; that is to say, in order for the sentence to be grammatical “what it might appear to others that what you were was what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise” would have to be grammatically equivalent to “what you are not” or the like. It seems reasonably clear to me that this is not the case, or (if you’d like it put more simply) that the grammatical knot Mr. Carroll has constructed cannot be untangled without the use of a Gordian sword. But I am not so confident of this that I am not amenable to being corrected by readers whose analytic skills are not inferior to my own.
(Readers with a taste for inextricable tangles may wish to peruse my earlier entry BLACK HOLES OF SELF-CANCELLATION.)