Sequence of optional tense

M. Ryan Bochnak


In English, sentences containing a past tense in the complement clause of a past-marked propositional attitude predicate (e.g, John said Mary was sick) are ambiguous between a simultaneous and a back-shifted reading, in a phenomenon known as Sequence of Tense. In languages like Japanese, only a shifted reading is available for such past-under-past sentences. Two families of theories have been proposed in the literature to account for this variation: structural and pragmatic. Structural accounts rely on a syntactic rule or licensing condition to derive simultaneous readings of embedded clauses. Pragmatic accounts rely on competition between past and present tense in embedded clauses to derive the readings. In this paper, I provide new data from Washo, an optional tense language, to weigh in on these theories. In Washo, both tensed and (past-oriented) tenseless embedded clauses can have simultaneous and back-shifted readings. I argue that structural approaches can account for the Washo generalizations fairly straightforwardly, while pragmatic approaches encounter difficulties. The result is that the distribution of simultaneous readings cross-linguistically is more fruitfully viewed as a syntactic phenomenon rather than a pragmatic one.

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