A regular theme on this blog looks at “dangling modifiers” that on no reasonable grounds should some of them be treated as ungrammatical. Here are two cases, of different types.
Archive for the ‘Danglers’ Category
Katy Steinmetz on the TIME blog yesterday, in “Say It Aint So: The Movement to Kill the Apostrophe: On National Punctuation Day, here’s a look at efforts to obliterate the apostrophe and unleash a Wild West of unmarked possession”:
Today is the 10th annual National Punctuation Day, a high holiday on nerd calendars across these great United States. Its stated purpose is to be a celebration of underappreciated, misused marks like the semicolon and “the ever mysterious ellipsis.” But a better-known piece of punctuation has been getting some apocalyptic press and deserves attention on this day of celebration: the apostrophe.
Back in January I looked at a racy dangler in final position in its clause, where the referent for the missing subject was picked up from a combination of the subject of the clause and an oblique object in the clause; the antecedent was split between two different elements in the clause. Now this morning in a KQED Perspectives column by Steven Moss (“Transformation”), another split-antecedent dangler, less racy and now in clause-initial position.
In ad copy for the Michael Lucas raunchy gay porn film The Wetter the Better, this summary of some hot-hot man-on-man action (not perhaps to everyone’s taste, but this posting is about syntax and semantics, not watersports, as piss play is delicately referred to in some contexts):
Morgan Black spices up his sex life with Christopher Daniels by soaking him in piss before fucking each other.
Two sentence-final subjectless predicational adjuncts there, and they both need something to supply the referent of the missing subject (they are SPARs): by soaking him with piss, which picks up a referent for its missing subject from the subject of the main clause, Morgan Black; and before fucking each other, which the writer of the copy clearly intended to pick up a referent for its missing subject from the *combination of* the subject of the main clause (Morgan Black again) and the oblique object in that clause, Christopher Daniels. The first exercise in referent-finding is just the default Subject Rule for these things, so there’s no issue. The second exercise in referent-finding is non-default, requiring before fucking each other to be interpreted as ‘before they fuck each other’, where they refers to the set-theoretic union of Black and Daniels (and the semantics of each other then tells you that Black will fuck Daniels and Daniels will fuck Black, as indeed happens in the flick — this is called flip-fucking in the trade). I understand the writer’s intent, but the non-default SPAR is beyond my comfort zone in this case. A dangler too far.
On today’s Morning Edition on NPR, in the story “Without Heat, Sandy Victims ['victims of the storm Sandy', not 'victims who are covered with sand'] Guard Their Homes”:
He’s living in a house that was partially flooded so it doesn’t get robbed – for a second time.
The sentence adverbial so it doesn’t get robbed … is clearly intended to modify the main clause (he’s living in a house …) — it offers a reason for this man to live in a house that was partially flooded — but some listeners probably had a moment of wondering about partially flooding the house so it doesn’t get robbed. The intended interpretation involves “high attachment” (HA), to the main clause preceding the so-adverbial, rather than “low attachment” (LA), to the relative clause within the main clause. It’s been noted again and again that LA is preferred in syntactic processing, but also noted (see here, for example) that this is only a default, with context, real-world knowledge, and discourse organization often favoring HA instead.
In the cases that people have looked at in terms of LA vs. HA, the issue is how some constituent C is parsed with respect to preceding material: is it parsed with a lower, smaller predecessor constituent B or with a higher, more inclusive predecessor A (ending in B)? Since the head word of B (was (flooded) in the hurricane example above) will of necessity be nearer to C (the so-adverbial in this example) than the head of A (is (living) in this example) is, this preference is often thought of as a preference for attachment to the nearest, but it’s the structural relationships that are key here.
From NPR’s Morning Edition on the 17th, in the story “Farmers Cautious of Drought-Resistant Seeds”:
Z4.72. Like many Iowa farmers, [Gary] Plunkett’s corn harvest numbers have gyrated …
Some usage critics (like Philip B. Corbett, the NYT‘s associate managing editor for standards, in charge of the paper’s style manual) would reject the initial like-phrase out of hand as a “dangling modifier” — see below — but people not under the sway of an explicit rule about these things tend not to see anything at all notable in examples like this one, which are very common, even in careful writing.
From the Economist of 12/3/11, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws” [the magazine is fond of jokey titles], after a long first paragraph about medical marijuana boom in Colorado:
While it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business.
Now, (medical) marijuana is highly topical when this sentence comes along in the discourse. so that’s almost surely the referent of the subject pronoun it in the initial subordinate clause. Nevertheless, I expected this pronoun to be cataphoric, preferably with its referent picked up by the subject of the main clause — but that’s Colorado (where Colorado is paired with 16 states and the District of Columbia), and not a NP referring to marijuana. So I had a brief moment of unfulfilled expectation that wasn’t ironed out until medicinal pot came along, embedded within the main clause.
My reaction to this explicit pronoun subject it is much like many people’s reaction to zero subjects in initial sentence adverbials, in initial SPARs (subjectless predcative adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject). Sometimes the referent is given right there in the preceding context, but still we expect the zero to be cataphoric, preferably to the subject of the main clause.
It’s been a while since I posted about the absolutist (vs. the contextualist) position on subjectless predicational adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject (SPARs, for short), namely that they must obey the Subject Rule (that the missing subject of the adjunct must be supplied by subject of the clause it’s adjoined to); if a SPAR doesn’t obey the Subject Rule, it’s labeled a “dangler” and is judged, by absolutists, to be always ungrammatical, regardless of context, discourse organization, or real-life plausibility. So examples like
After writing a book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.
are rejected as irredeemably ungrammatical by some writers. For them, the Subject Rule is a matter of God’s Truth, not a preference in referent-finding.
What I said on the matter last year:
How do people get to the absolutist [vs. the contextualist] position? The full journey is twisted and complicated, but the crucial midpoint is where the Subject Rule comes to be seen not as a rule of thumb but as a rule of grammar (for standard English). Once you buy that, then there’s no point in looking at context; context can’t ameliorate ungrammaticality. Kisses pleases me (with kisses understood as the plural of the common noun kiss ‘act of kissing’) is not standard English, and no amount of preceding or following linguistic context or scene-setting story-telling can change that …
So almost everyone writing about “danglers” cites examples isolated from context of any kind and bereft of background knowledge about the substance of the text. The internal content of the examples is almost entirely irrelevant, in this view …
Now two recent instances of absolutist criticism.
For bibliophiles, this Incidental Comics cartoon, by Grant Snider, of 8/21/12:
As someone who lives amidst piles of books, with more coming in all the time, the cartoon speaks to me.
[Yes, that sentence has a non-canonical SPAR, also known as a "dangling modifier". I wrote the sentence without reflecting on it or noticing the non-canonical SPAR in it, but I'm sticking by it; see my discussion of acceptable as-a SPARs here.]
Via Bert Vaux on Facebook, this Cyanide and Happiness cartoon (from 10/24/10):
Putting aside the matter of paternal-filial relationships, there’s a (possible) syntactic point here (which is why Vaux posted the cartoon), in:
A: Despite being an agnostic, I think Jesus Christ allegedly did some pretty cool stuff.
B takes his to be presupposing that Jesus was an agnostic, while A intended to convey that he, A, is an agnostic.