Modification woes

From Chris Bogart:

I thought you’d enjoy this sentence from the Wikipedia page [here], since it involves either a dangling modifier or extreme word rage, depending on how you interpret it. I know Wikipedia is editable, but I can’t bear to fix this:

[(1)] “After the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia, most likely to make things clearer in writing, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms.”

Well, the sentence is seriously balled up, and something that is technically a dangling modifier (“most likely to make things clearer in writing”) is part of the mix, but the big issue is which of the two clauses — “after the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia” or “some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms” — that modifier belongs with. That is, the sentence is potentially ambiguous, and the interpretation that readers are likely to get (because it associates the modifier with the clause that comes immediately before it) is stunningly the wrong one.

To appreciate the point, notice that when the first clause is out of the way, there’s no problem (beyond the technical dangler) in associating the modifier with the following clause:

(2) “Most likely to make things clearer in writing, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms.”

Nor is there any problem if the modifier is moved to the end:

(3) “After the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms, most likely to make things clearer in writing.”

On to the dangling modifier thing. As I set out in a Language Log posting of 5/21/08 “Why are some summatives labeled “vague”?”, the modifiers in question are SPARs, Subjectless Predicative Adjuncts requiring that a Referent be supplied for the missing subject, and the canonical referent is supplied by the subject of the modified clause (the Subject Rule).

Non-canonical SPARs are technically danglers, but many of them are in fact innocuous — except, alas, to people who have internalized the Subject Rule, perhaps by having been taught it. Some, of course, are hilarious, and it’s a major task to try to figure out what makes some easy to process and some so disastrously misleading.

Versions (2) and (3) have a non-canonical SPAR; the referent of the missing subject is the (unexpressed) agent(s) of the change in the signs. Indeed, who altered the signs is not particularly important, and almost surely unknowable, so trying to fix the SPAR by rewriting the main clause so as to supply an appropriate subject will require some ingenuity. But here’s a possible re-working of (2):

(2′) “Most likely to make things clearer in writing, writers gradually changed some signs from (being) pictograms to syllabograms.”

Kind of clunky, to my mind; I have no problem with (2) and (3).

But fixing only the non-canonical SPAR in (1) won’t help things at all, because the reader will still be led into a mis-parsing; (3) or a canonical-SPAR rewriting of it will do the trick.


2 Responses to “Modification woes”

  1. Erik Zyman Carrasco Says:

    Man, I usually have no trouble parsing English (my most native language), but for some reason it took me a really long time* to realize that “most” was a degree word modifying “likely”—for some reason I was interpreting it as a quantifier, which had me asking, “Most of what?!” and perplexedly trying to work out what relation, if any, it stood in to “likely.”

    *Probably on the order of a couple dozen seconds.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Comments on Facebook:

    Rick Wojcik: You have to admire the Semites for being willing to go to war in order to improve the readability of signs. There are times when I’ve felt that way, particularly when driving through Belgium.

    John Lawler: I’m sure this is what the Troubles in N. Ireland were about.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: