The impersonal value of demonstrative and middle constructions

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This chapter suggests a possible methodology for outlining the range of impersonals in French. The proposal relies on two main points. First, impersonals constitute a gradual category. Any structure will be considered impersonal if (i) it defocuses or backgrounds the agent of the profiled process, and (ii) its profiled process exhibits a degree of generality which makes it available to a generalized conceptualizer (anyone in the appropriate situation). These criteria can obviously be met in a variety of ways, and need to be evaluated within each participating structure. Secondly, even though the notions of defocusing and generality are abstract and scalar, their evaluation within specific structures, and thus the treatment of these structures as impersonals, is greatly facilitated by the clustering of closely related senses into specific “constructions” (Goldberg 1995, 2006, Langacker 1987, 1991, 2005). In some cases, these constructions are easily identified by morphosyntactic criteria, but in others, they only diverge from their structurally similar neighbors by incorporating a specific set of semantic or pragmatic distinctive features. Given the fluid nature of the proposed criteria, these constructions provide islands of regularity within which impersonals can reliably be identified, and therefore constitute one of the main organizing principles of the impersonal category in French. This chapter illustrates this methodology with an analysis of the demonstrative and middle impersonals.


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