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  • On non-progressive being
  • Susan F. Schmerling and Diego Gabriel Krivochen

1. Introduction

Some years ago, one of the authors of this squib was working in a large organization with many layers of management.1 It often happened that a manager who usually performed certain functions was unavailable to do so, and those functions were performed by a so-called backup, who was authorized to perform them in the manager’s absence. It was common for a backup performing such a function to say a sentence like (1) to other employees, and those other employees might speak of the occasion using a sentence like (2).

(1) I’m being Mary today.

(2) Sue is being Mary today.

In the kind of situation described, employees who were not performing these managerial functions accepted sentences like (1) and (2) and understood them to be communicating the propositions conveyed by (3).

(3) Mary has authorized {me / Sue} to perform functions in her absence that she normally performs.

Sentences (1) and (2) could be – and were – taken to be truthful. It was possible for them to be taken this way precisely because it was understood that they meant that Sue was [End Page 112] acting in Mary’s stead. That is, it was understood that in sentences (1) and (2) the subject, informally termed a backup, as indicated above, was functioning as what might be referred to legalistically as a proxy for the NP immediately following being.

Sentences like (1) and (2) have the appearance of progressives. We will argue, however, that the interpretation of such sentences, where the subject is understood as a proxy for the NP immediately following being, does not follow from our understanding of the semantics of progressive utterances generally, such as that discussed in Dowty (1979) and much subsequent work (see Landman 1992, Portner 2011, and references cited there). We will argue, in fact, that despite the presence of -ing in these sentences, -ing does not contribute to a progressive interpretation, and we will propose an alternative account that is not grounded in aspect. This account takes as its point of departure two types of sentences of the form NP1 BE being NP2, where NP2 is a proper name: (a) cases in which NP2 is formally distinct from NP1, and (b) cases in which NP2 is formally identical to NP1; we will suggest extensions of our analysis of these sentences to sentences with indefinite complement NPs, as well as APs.

Section 2 has three subsections. In section 2.1 we look at sentences like (1) and (2) in more detail. Then in section 2.2 we examine another class of sentences that at first glance seem quite unlike sentences (1) and (2) – sentences like John is (just) being John – but which, we will argue, are understood in the same manner as (1) and (2) are. This section includes our proposed formal account of the two sentence types we are concentrating on, an account that reflects our position that we are dealing here with something other than true progressives, the presence of -ing not-withstanding. Our alternative account makes use not of progressive semantics but rather of a novel operator rho (ρ) in semantic representations, which narrows down the reference of the NPs occurring in these sentences but in a way that does not involve aspect. Our rho-based account has a critical pragmatic component, and section 2.3 looks at the pragmatic factors that are involved in speakers’ understanding of the sentences in sections 1 and 2. Section 3 takes a look at sentences like John is being a genius or John is being brilliant, in which the complement of BE being is an indefinite NP or an AP.

2. Two kinds of NP complements of BE being

This section includes our proposed formal account of the sentence types presented in section 1.

2.1 Stand-in and role-playing sentences

Sentences (1) and (2), on the reading that concerns us here, are understood as discussing proxies – generally known informally as backups – in the hierarchical organizations in which they are used. A critical property of these sentences is that they must...


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pp. 112-119
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