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15 August 2004 @ 13:41

Geoff Nunberg, at Language Log, ponders James McGreevey's statement that he (McGreevey) had had an affair "with another man." (McGreevey is married to a woman.)

I didn't notice anything odd about the construction before it was pointed out to me in an email from Mr. Gary Apter that another was hard to figure here -- I mean, would that be equivalent to "I had an affair with a man other than myself"?

This is, I think, another instance of what happens when one stares too hard at natural language under the cold light of logic, which is the sort of thing that leads, for example, to the inference that people who say "I could care less" are either sarcastic or nuts. Another is a perfectly natural and ordinary way of marking the fact that an indefinite noun phrase refers to someone or something that has not already been mentioned in the discourse, when the rest of the NP describes the new referent only in terms that could equally apply to someone or something that has already been mentioned.

I think the case becomes clearer if we leave sex out of it. Consider the following sentences:

  1. I saw the governor talking to another man.
  2. I saw the governor talking to a man.

Sentence (1) is an entirely normal way of reporting that one has observed a conversation between two men, one of whom was the governor. It does not place any particular contrastive emphasis on the fact that the governor was not talking to himself. I could also use sentence (2) to describe the same situation, although I think I would be less likely to; the inclusion of nother, while not syntactically obligatory, seems to serve pragmatically as an acknowledgment of the fact that man isn't enough of a description to distinguish the second man mentioned in the sentence from the first. (This despite the fact that sentence (2) would not be an acceptable way of reporting that one saw the governor talking to himself.) Of course, if the governor is a woman, then man is a sufficiently distinct way of describing her interlocutor, and (2) is appropriate but (1) is not.

The full phrase McGreevey used to describe the affair was "an adult consensual affair with another man." If I were going to pick on anything in that description (and really, I think McGreevey has been subjected to enough scrutiny already), it would not be the innocuous another, but the redundancy of "adult consensual affair." If it weren't consensual, or if either of the participants had not been an adult, it would not have been an affair; it would have been rape.

(Deleted comment)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 15. August, 2004 13:56 (UTC)

I don't think that's relevant in this case; I think this is something much more general about the way another is used in English.

-entangledbank on 15. August, 2004 15:40 (UTC)
As you have it, there is an unintended possible ambiguity. If I am male and I mention another man, it might be a man other than me. So try it with

(3) The governor was talking to another man.
(4) The governor was talking to a man.

Now (3) can be read unemphatically as 'someone else' (with gender feature male), which is effectively 'someone' (i.e. not remaining silent), and the extra exclusion is that he wasn't talking to himself. But (3) does seem to imply that he wasn't, as might be expected, talking to a woman, but was talking to someone of the same sex as himself: and I'm not sure why you would want to foreground this. By contrast (4) at least in isolation has nowhere else to focus so has to focus on 'man', making this contrastive. Actually I don't know what I'm saying.
Henrytahnan on 16. August, 2004 00:49 (UTC)
That doesn't seem to be the whole story, though. There's a definite contrast between (5) and (6), with the background that I'm male and (overtly) heterosexual:

(5) I had an affair with another man today.
(6) I talked to another man today.

The sentence in (5) sounds fine to me (even though, given that I am engaged to a woman, the only man in the discourse in (5) is myself), whereas (6) sounds very strange. It's certainly true that in (1) and (2) "another" is preferred if the governor is a man, as a way of distinguishing the governor from the other man; but if the only purpose of "another" is to clarify discourse, why should there be a contrast here? (That is, why should (6) be strange, if I'm using "another" only to mark that the man under discussion has not yet been mentioned?)

Certainly both (5) and (6) are acceptable in a context in which there's a man besides myself in the discourse that I'm looking to distinguish the object of the sentence from. (E.g. in the context "I {had an affair with/talked to} a man yesterday", the sentences in (5) and (6) are good for exactly the reasons described in the posting here: "another" is a marker that this man isn't the same man as before.)

It seems that the general pattern is, as Q. Pheevr suggests, that "another" is a normal discourse maker. If a man says (7), there's nothing anomalous, whereas saying (8) would be. (Suppose the man were sitting a room with three women, who were discussing the merits of high heels versus flats, to which he could contribute nothing.)

(7) I wish there were another man in this room. Then I'd have someone to talk to.
(8) I wish there were a man in this room. Then I'd have someone to talk to.

In this case, "another" clearly is necessary to distinguish the wished-for man from the speaker, who is a man in the room. (The pronoun need not be present in the sentence, in fact: consider a doctor calling out, "Is there {another/#a} doctor in the house?")

No amount of pragmatics seems to help in these cases: of course I know I'm a man, of course the man in the room is looking for someone other than himself to talk to, and of course a doctor who asks the room if anyone's a doctor already knows he's a doctor and must be looking for another one.

(Side note: I think the same effects hold with "anyone else": "Is anyone here a doctor" is a strange question from a doctor; "Is anyone else here a doctor" is an ordinary question from a doctor, or from a non-doctor who's been talking to a doctor and wants a second opinion.)

So why not (6)? Why don't I report my encounter with John as "I talked to another man today"?
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 17. August, 2004 09:16 (UTC)

All right, then, what about (9) and (10)?

  1. I talked to a linguist today.
  2. I talked to another linguist today.

(Assume speaker is a linguist.) Now, my intuitions are getting a little frayed around the edges, but I think (10) is more natural than (6), and I suspect that this has something to do with how specific the non-distinct description is.

Also, I think I've figured out what McGreevey should have said, which is (11).

  1. I had an affair with a man who was not my wife.