he doesn’t put it past her, and she doesn’t put him past it

So who’s where?

Today, I described a local unsavory character (let’s call him Al) with the expression, “I wouldn’t put it past him.” But I had trouble figuring out not only the pronoun sequence but also the ‘past’ relation. Was it that I didn’t think he’d passed it or it passed him? Or was it that I thought he would not pass him or him pass it?

After stumbling and trying a couple of jumbled efforts, my interlocutor offered, “you don’t put it past him to steal Mike’s idea,” to which I responded with, “what does it mean? Who is past what?” She replied, “It’s okay, we know what you mean.”

It’s such a dense phrase, interweaving a [can’t recall the term…this is taking a while…] formulaic or schematic expression, but an unusually complex one, requiring three pronouns, a believer, an object of a verb and an object of a preposition, a metaphorical distance relation with a twist of negation.

The distance relation alone is confounding. I once tried to explain to a non-English speaker the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’ and ‘behind’. It was a comedy of confusion. Suppose you’re standing in the yard of a house, facing the house and talking about the back yard of the house. The house is before you and in front of you and the back yard, relative to the house, is before it. The back yard is also behind the house, relative to you. Yet the back yard is also further in front of the house, relative to the acreage extending beyond, although the house is in front of the back yard, relative to you. It’s hopeless.

Then there’s all those pronouns. My meaning was that Al is beyond stealing — he won’t stop at stealing — and so I wouldn’t put it past him. That is, I would put him past it. This was not so clear to me at the time. The mere syntactic act of getting the sequence right was a challenge, since the usual simple cues (subject-object, agent-patient) were all thrown off by this metaphorical place relation and the additional hurdle of negation.

And even now, I have to figure it out, like counting on fingers. I wouldn’t put him past it? Or I wouldn’t put it past him? The latter, I think.

Do normal speakers think this one through, or is the neuter pronoun automatic in the second place as verbal object? Did I get confused simply because I tripped over the syntactic sequence? Or is it a genuine loss of semantic relations?

My interlocutor today didn’t explicitly map out the relation, but just gave the correct expression and said “We know what you mean.”

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2 Responses to “he doesn’t put it past her, and she doesn’t put him past it”

  1. Scraps Says:

    That’s exactly what I go through. It gets easier the more my language improves, but I think I’m going through some version of it for probably the rest of my life.

  2. Jacque Says:

    Wow. Boggle. One forgets how much of this stuff is automated until one sees it pulled out and unpacked, all over the livingroom, like.

    Fascinating.

    A teacher once told me that there’s a terrific challenge in teaching deaf kids certain concepts like “above” and “below.” I wonder if this is related?

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