THE SIMPLICITY OF THE DUTCHESS.

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.)

Comments

  1. dungbeattle says:

    Remember ’twas writ by a mathematician. So get all ones equivalents on the correct side of equals.

  2. If I may be granted the quotation marks, how about this:
    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.
    which I simplify to:
    Never imagine yourself to be what “it seems that what you were was what you had been” would have appeared to be otherwise.
    If “otherwise” refers to the case in which one HAD imagined oneself to be etc. (contrary to orders), then the statement in quotes is false. Then, blur the mathematical and metaphorical senses of “true” and “false”
    I imagine myself to be false (in the sense of being what I seem to be) and thus i act falsely, and am false
    in which case the statement “it seems that what I am was what I had been” is false
    But if I had imagined myself to be true (in the sense of being what I seem to be), so I act truly, and am true
    then the statement “it seems that what I am was what I had been” is true.
    I should have been a theologian.

  3. I bow to your exegetical-mathematical-logical skills (C.L. Dodgson would have nodded his head approvingly), and yes, theology would not be a subject you would not have done well at.

  4. These people put their comment function up for a few hours while I was on holiday, I think.
    If they had one I would draw their attention to the lyrics of Clever Trevor (sorry, Trevor!) by Ian Dury, who came from where my family live:
    just cos I ain’t never ‘ad, no, nothing worth having
    never ever, never ever
    you ain’t got no call not to think I wouldn’t fall
    into thinking that I ain’t too clever
    and it ain’t not having one thing nor another
    niether, either is it anything, whatever
    and it’s not not knowing that there ain’t nothing showing
    and I answer to the name of Trever, however
    http://www.lyricsbox.com/ian-dury-and-the-blockheads-lyrics-clever-trevor-s472mpn.html

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