Why "the house(i) had a fence around itself(i)" is ungrammatical but "Susan(i) wrapped the blanket around herself(i)" is grammatical?

  • It's odd, but not ungrammatical. – curiousdannii Apr 19 '20 at 0:34

The explanation seems to be that in English, adjuncts do not license reflexive pronouns. (This may be too strong a way of putting it, since as curiousdannii's comment shows, for some speakers sentences like your (1) are not ungrammatical. But at the least we can say that reflexive pronouns in adjuncts are optional or dispreferred, whereas in arguments, they're obligatory when there's coreference with the subject.)

The reason for the difference between (1) and (2) is that in (2), around herself is not an adjunct but an argument of the verb.

Relevant English SE question.


(1) below is ambiguous between a causative interpretation (2) and a topicalized version of (3) with the implication that Susan was affected somehow.

(1) Susan had the blanket wrapped around her arm.
(2) Susan caused the blanket to be wrapped around her arm.
(3) The blanket was wrapped around Susan's arm.

Your first example with a reflexive pronoun is only interpretable as a causative, like (2) above, so it is only interpretable on the assumption that houses can cause things, which in our world is unusual.

  • "The house had a fence built around itself" would be causative, but I don't see how you can get a causative reading without some participle such as built. (Susan had the blanket around her arm isn't causative.) – TKR Apr 19 '20 at 19:13
  • @TKR Houses can now have computers installed to do routine things like monitor and correct temperature in its rooms. Imagine a future day when the house computer is also given control of landscaping, including fencing. People can talk with their house and have come to think of their houses as person-like, so whatever you can say about a human contractor, you can say about your house. I recall reading SCIFI stories with that premise. – Greg Lee Apr 20 '20 at 1:46
  • One of us (or more) is misunderstanding the other. What I'm saying is that though The house had a fence built around itself might be read as causative (in a world where houses can do such things), the OP's sentence The house had a fence around itself can't, because such have-causatives require a participle. – TKR Apr 20 '20 at 1:54
  • But it can. "I went on vacation, and when I returned, I found that my intelligent house had a fence around itself." – Greg Lee Apr 20 '20 at 12:38
  • I'm not sure that's grammatical, but it's not a causative construction, as it doesn't entail that the house caused the fence to be built. In any case the OP's question is why you can't say The house had a fence around itself to mean The house had a fence around it -- as far as I can see this answer doesn't address that. – TKR Apr 20 '20 at 17:44

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