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I was vacantly reading the paper the other day when I came across a strange formation in the obituary: "he married his wife in 19XX". I was rather taken aback by this; surely he can't marry his own wife. He could attempt to marry someone else's wife, and that would be bigamy. But surely marrying one's own wife is a logical impossibility?

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I am often asked, "how did you and your wife meet?" I respond, "actually, we met long before we were married." (No, I don't really do this.) –  Kosmonaut Jan 5 '11 at 19:58
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So according to you, a sentence like "My father was born in 1920" is wrong, and I should instead always say "The man who would 30 years later become my father was born in 1920"? –  ShreevatsaR Jan 5 '11 at 20:26
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I just want to mention that I really love this sort of question. It brings up some really interesting semantic issues. –  Kosmonaut Jan 5 '11 at 23:18
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How can you give birth to a man? I think you mean "The baby who 30 years later became my father was born in 1920." ;-) –  Mark Byers Mar 23 '11 at 22:05
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How can a baby become a father? Shouldn't it be "The baby who would in 30 years grow up to be the man that became my father was born in 1920"? ;-) –  Kaivosukeltaja May 29 '12 at 15:34

5 Answers 5

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I think "he married his wife" is merely redundant, not illogical. (However, in terms of language, bear in mind that it need not be proven logical in order to be considered grammatical English and to be understood by everyone.)

I think it is quite normal to have an attribution (e.g. relationship, title, name, etc.) be understood to be the person that fits that attribution at the time of the utterance or writing. Now, this isn't always done, but I think it is the default assumption, and it is also logically consistent.

This is why, in news articles, we see things like, "Sean Penn and then-wife Madonna were often seen at...". If the referent of "wife" is dependent on the tense or timeframe of the sentence it is in, then there would be no need to say "then-wife", you could just say "wife".

Think of other examples where this is done every day:

President Obama attended Occidental College.

But he wasn't president when he was in college.

My father was in the army for a few years.

But he wasn't my father before I was born.

And so on. I think that once you start thinking about it, you will see it is actually done all the time, and you probably didn't even notice.

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"He married his wife" is not necessarily redundant. In some cases, it can be incomplete. What if he's a divorcee and/or has married twice. "He married his current wife" or "he married his first wife" would be more complete. –  anthony-arnold Jan 6 '11 at 2:59
    
Now you come to mention it, I didn't notice. But "married his wife" was a novelty for me, and made me consider the point. –  Brian Hooper Jan 6 '11 at 12:44
    
@Brian Hooper: I hadn't considered the extent of it either until your question! –  Kosmonaut Jan 6 '11 at 13:53
    
Agree with all except your first sentence. If someone said, "Bob married his wife" and stopped there, yes, that would be redundant. But the original sentence was, "He married his wife in 19XX". The point of the sentence is not to inform us that he did, indeed, marry his wife, but rather to tell us when. I suppose you could eliminate any sense of redundancy by saying "He got married in 19XX" or "He married Sally Jones in 19XX." (Though the latter requires that we know the name of his wife and want to tell it.) –  Jay Nov 29 '12 at 20:49
    
Indeed, applying the rule that the OP implies would make it almost impossible to communicate some very simple ideas. "I hired an assistant to help me build a house." But at the time I hired him, by the same reasoning as the example, he was not yet my assistant. And the house did not yet exist. Even if I said, "I hired the person who was to become my assistant to help build assemble wood and nails and other raw materials into ..." But I'm still stuck. Can I say "it will be a house" when it isn't a house now, when it indeed does not even exist? ... –  Jay Nov 29 '12 at 20:55

"Married" is past tense, obviously. We are looking backwards in time from now to see the action that did occur. However "He" and "his wife" are the current topic of conversation (as of the day of the obituary). As of now, being after the occasion of the past-tense verb, they are "he" and "his wife". So yes. this is valid.

Had it been the day before they married, it would merely be poetic license, as they would not, yet, have been married.

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It's interesting that divorce isn't held to the same standard. It's more correct to say "he divorced his ex-wife" but one hears "he divorced his wife" all the time. –  ghoppe Jan 5 '11 at 20:24
    
@ghope that is indeed interesting. Good point. –  jcolebrand Jan 5 '11 at 20:34
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Or to further emphasize this... "I will marry my wife tomorrow" would probably be seen as awkward/wrong by most people... as the subjects are not "presently" married. –  Armstrongest Jan 6 '11 at 0:42
    
But isn't that a bit of future perfect tense? So in that tense/situation it makes sense and is valid? –  jcolebrand Jan 6 '11 at 0:48
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@ghoppe: It's nothing about being held to the same standard; a word can refer either to the current time or the time in question. If it always referred to the current time, we couldn't talk of (e.g.) dead people without difficulty. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 6 '11 at 14:45

It's simply shorthand for saying "He married the woman who is now his wife."

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This is more of an extension to the other answers.

The verb "marry" can be used with reference to others as well. A minister "marries" couples. This leads to legitimate, but improbable, uses of the word.

Of course, if you "married your wife" in this sense, that means that you married a couple consisting of your current wife and someone else. They got divorced/whatever and then you "married" her later (in the sense that she became your wife). Pretty improbable use-case.

"Marry one's wife" is even stranger. This is only possible when "marry" is in the future tense--"I will marry my wife tomorrow", and it means "I shall marry my wife to someone else soon(after getting a divorce)". Even more improbable, since I doubt someone would say that.

So, if you want to be nitpicky about logical impossibilities, then the above two are some cases where the phrase can be used correctly. Extremely improbable use-case, though, even if you consider bigamy and the likes.

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These are not legitimate use-cases I think. When referring to performing the ceremony, the subject should always be plural, or the verb should be used transitively. This, The minister married my wife. always means they are married to eachother, while The minister married my wife and I. or The minister married us., or more awkward The minister married my wife to me. means that he performed the ceremony. –  Darrel Hoffman Sep 4 '13 at 3:57

Actually, since this is an obituary, she's no longer his wife but his widow.

EDIT since various comments seem to have missed the point. Explanations along the lines of "married the woman who is now his wife" cannot be right, as she isn't. "Married the woman who then became his wife" would be correct but tautologous, besides the fact that this is not the phrase in question. Merely saying "it's all right' is not enough on this site, you need to provide a proper explanation.

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this should be a comment, not an answer... –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jun 15 '11 at 22:16
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What does the answer add to the discussion? –  Vaibhav Garg Jun 16 '11 at 11:08

protected by RegDwigнt May 29 '12 at 12:21

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