Comma, please!

On p. 1 of  the 7 January 2009 NYT, the first sentence of “Purple Heart Is Ruled Out for Traumatic Stress” by Lizette Alvarez and Erik Eckholm:

The Pentagon has decided that it will not award the Purple Heart, the hallowed medal given to those wounded or killed by enemy action, to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because it is not a physical wound.

I had a moment of reading “because it is not a physical wound” as modifying “who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”, which was a bizarre thought. Problem with modifier attachment! “Because it is not a physical wound” is supposed to modify the whole “it will not award the Purple Heart … to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder”. I read it as having “low attachment”, but the writers intended “high attachment” — an intention that could have been made clearer by a comma setting off “because it is not a physical wound”.

Attachment problems have come up on Language Log a number of times, at least the ones here:

ML, 5/1/04: Speakers vs. hearers (link)

AZ, 7/7/04: Don’t dangle your participles in public (link)  

AZ, 2/22/06: Not your usual modifier attachment problem (link)

AZ, 11/16/07: Opening Parliament and deliver a speech (link)

AZ, 12/6/07: QE2 (link)

EB, 12/9/08: Believed to be an F-18 (link) [note especially the comments by David Clausen and me]

Most of this discussion concerns attachment to nominal expressions; in the PTSD sentence, it’s attachment to verbal expressions that’s at issue, but the situations are broadly similar. There’s a general preference for low attachment, but high attachment is well attested and often unproblematic (given context, real-world plausibility, discourse organization, and various other factors). However, when the modified material in high attachment is long and complex, as in the PTSD sentence, readers and listeners might go for low attachment, even if the resulting interpretation is implausible or ridiculous.

(The comma-less version is still on the web site, by the way.)

5 Responses to “Comma, please!”

  1. Chris Waigl Says:

    I maneuvered the high attachment just fine, but have another thing that tends to throw me in sentences like this: I read “will not award the Purple Heart … to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder” and thought “why on earth would having PTSD make you ineligible for a medal?” After all, it says that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder will not receive the medal.

    So what’s the difference between your sentence and

    […] Obama should publicly declare that he will not award ambassadorships to people who provided financial support for his campaign but have little foreign service or foreign policy background. (just googled up) ?

  2. Philip Says:

    A comma before “because” certainly makes the pronoun reference clearer, as you’ve pointed out, but why?

    The rule I was taught (and one I teach) is that extra stuff before an independent clause needs to be set off by a comma, but there’s no comma needed if same extra stuff comes after an independent clause:

    Because he was wounded, the soldier got a Purple Heart.

    The soldier got a purple heart because he was wounded.

    So I’m confused. The comma you suggest works for me, but why?

    –Philip

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Philip: this is about adverbial subordinate clauses. Such clauses can precede or follow the main clause. When they precede, they are sentence adverbials and are set off by a comma in writing. When they follow, they can be either sentence adverbials (in my posting on for/because, I referred to such adverbials as “external” to the clause they’re attached to) or VP adverbials (“internal” to the clause). Sentence-final sentence adverbials are normally set off by a comma (though there’s some leeway here), but VP adverbials are not. (In many cases the meaning difference between the sentence adverbial and the VP adverbial is subtle, if detectable at all, so the comma can be dispensed with.)

    I understand “because it is not a physical wound” in the original example as a sentence adverbial, so it can be set off by a comma — and the comma would eliminate the possibility of the ridiculous interpretation, which is a good thing.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Chris Waigl: “will not award the Purple Heart … to war veterans who suffer from PTSD” is in fact ambiguous, between ‘suffering from PTSD does not qualify someone for the Purple Heart’ (the meaning intended in the original) and ‘suffering from PTSD disqualifies someone for the Purple Heart’ (the meaning you saw). I’m not at the moment sure what factors permit or favor one reading or the other.

  5. Not awarding the Purple Heart « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog Says:

    […] awarding the Purple Heart By arnoldzwicky In an earlier posting about an example from the New York Times, I looked at the way a because-clause was to be […]

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