Darwin seems to have been to Australia

It seems you can’t say ‘Charles Darwin has visited Australia’, but you can say ‘Charles Darwin seems to have visited Australia’. Why is that?

 In a previous post, I mentioned ‘lifetime effects’ in the use of the perfect tense in English. Sentence (1) is one example from that earlier post.

(1) * Charles Darwin has visited Australia.

 [the asterisk is standard notation for an ungrammatical expression]

As discussed in that previous post, sentence (1) is unacceptable. https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/08/perfect-tense-lifetime-effects/

I’ve been wondering recently whether sentence (1) is still unacceptable if we embed sentence (1) inside a clause with the verb seem, to produce (2) and (3).

(2) *It seems that Charles Darwin has visited Australia.

(3) Charles Darwin seems to have visited Australia.

Example (2) is just as bad as example (1). But example (3) seems fine to me. Why is that?

What are lifetime effects?

The perfect tense in English reports past events that continue to have an effect in the present. As discussed in my previous post, ‘Lifetime effects’ arise when a sentence is felicitous only if it relates to a person or subject that still exists.

The topic of sentence (1) is Charles Darwin. That sentence could be used if an Australian visit by Darwin is still relevant to his life. But Darwin is no longer alive, so that connotation of continued relevance to Darwin produces a contradiction. This makes the sentence unacceptable.

Sentence (2)

Example (2) simply contains sentence (1) unchanged inside the clause it seems that. So, it is no surprise that sentence (1), unacceptable as a separate sentence, is still unacceptable when embedded inside another clause (it seems that).

On the other hand, if we vary example (2) by replacing the perfect tense (has visited) with the simple past (visited), the result is acceptable: Sentence (4) contains sentence (5) and is just as acceptable as sentence (5).

(4) It seems that Charles Darwin visited Australia.

(5) Charles Darwin visited Australia.

Although sentences (4) and (5) are acceptable, they sound odd as stand-alone statements. They probably need some context to make them felicitous.

Sentence (3)

It isn’t clear to me why sentence (3) is acceptable. It is made up of essentially the same components as the unacceptable (1) and (2). Sentence (3) differs from sentence (2) only in the following ways:

  • the auxiliary verb is in an inflected finite form (has) in sentence (2), but in sentence (3) it is in an uninflected non-finite form (to have). The traditional name for that non-finite is the infinitive, but some people (such as Huddlestone and Pullum (2021), analyse the sequence to have as a non-finite ‘plain form’ (have) following something akin to a subordinator (to).
  • the subject of the verb seems is the expletive (meaningless) pronoun it in sentence (2), but is Charles Darwin in sentence (3)
  • the subject of the embedded clause is Charles Darwin in sentence (2). In sentence (3), that clause apparently has no subject.

Syntax of sentence (3)

The syntactic structure of the sentences does not seem to offer a clue to why sentence (3) is acceptable even though sentence (2) is unacceptable. In syntactic theories that involve movement, sentence (3) would be analysed as being constructed in at least 2, stages, as follows.   

  • First, assemble the sentence [Charles Darwin to have visited Australia].
  • Second, embed that sentence in a clause containing the verb seem, to give [seems [Charles Darwin to have visited Australia]].
  • Finally, move the subject Charles Darwin from its original position to become the subject of seems. This gives: [Charles Darwin seems [Charles Darwin to have visited Australia]].
    Here, the struck-through text shows the original position of the subject Charles Darwin.

Most movement analyses in recent years have analysed movement as involving 3 steps:

  1. create a copy of the item that will be moved (in this case, Charles Darwin)
  2. insert that new copy in its destination (the landing site—here, immediately before seems).
  3. leave behind the original copy in its source position, but do not pronounce it.
    Here, strike-through text symbolises material that is not pronounced.

It isn’t clear to me why just moving Charles Darwin up into the clause containing seems (or copying Charles Darwin into there and leaving the original copy unpronounced) would make sentence (3) acceptable.

Transferring the lifetime effect

The context where I could imagine someone saying (or writing) sentence (3) is where the speaker (or writer) is reporting their current state of knowledge. In that context, perhaps the idea of current relevance—one of the hallmarks of the English present tense—attaches to the speaker’s state of knowledge, not to the lifetime of the person (or institution) mentioned in the embedded sentence.

So, in sentence (3), maybe the lifetime effect has somehow transferred from the embedded verbal phrase has visited to the verb seems where it is embedded. Perhaps the idea of current relevance has transferred from the lifetime of Charles Darwin to the lifetime of the (unexpressed) experiencer of seems. So maybe sentence (3) could be viewed as saying something like (6).

(6) It has seemed to me (and continues to seem to me) that Charles Darwin has visited Australia.

For that analysis to work, though, there needs to be some mechanism for transferring the lifetime effective from the embedded clause up into the clause in which it is embedded. I haven’t yet found what that mechanism could be. The lifetime effect in English is normally associated with the morphology of the perfect tense, composing the inflected auxiliary (have) and the past participle (visited). In sentence (3), the perfect morphology stays in the embedded clause.

Conclusion

It is still a puzzle to me why the unacceptable sentence (1) becomes acceptable when a slightly modified version of that sentence is embedded in a clause containing the verb seem, as in sentence (3). It seems to be something to do with either:

  •  cancellation of the lifetime effect; or
  • a transfer of the lifetime effect from the embedded verb to the verb seems.

I will keep looking for an answer to this puzzle.

Reference

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Rodney Huddlestone and Geoffrey K Pullum (2nd edition, 2021)

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