Remarks on anacoluthon

Following up on my “Combos” posting, an adaptation from a 2004 ADS-L posting of mine on anacoluthon:

I started with the discussion of anacoluthon, in the works of the famously stumbling U.S. presidents Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George W. Bush, in Michael Silverstein’s Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W” — where I thought I pretty much understood the concept — and actually looked up the technical term anacoluthon in various specialized dictionaries, only to discover a high degree of fuzzy thinking and variability in use. I started with several on-line dictionaries but was so dismayed and puzzled by what I found there that I turned to heavier hitters.

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (4th ed.) defines the term succinctly as

Beginning a sentence in one way and continuing or ending it in another

and supplies as its one example something that fit my prior understanding perfectly: “You know what I — but let’s forget it!”

Alas, Beckson & Ganz, Literary Terms, has a woolly definition —

A sentence which does not maintain a consistent grammatical sequence

and gives as its one example a classic sentence-initial dangling participle.  You can sort of see what they had in mind: a sentence-initial free adjunct is supposed to be (for some value of “supposed to be”) followed by a main-clause subject that supplies (the referent of) the subject that’s missing in the adjunct, so if it isn’t, the “grammatical sequence” is “inconsistent”.

But looking at such examples, it’s hard to see what they have in common, from the processing point of view, with such anacoluthic delights as this material (punctuated as a sentence) from Eisenhower’s West Point address on 6/5/60 (from Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies, p. 450)

This is what I hope to do myself, so far as it is proper and the people who will meet within a few short weeks to take over the direction of campaigns — I am ready to do my part.

So-called dangling participles might be savaged by usage manuals, but it’s very clear that people who produce them, as I did just above, intend to produce just what they come out with; maybe their grammar isn’t yours (or they’re speaking or writing without sufficient attention to the needs of their audience), but they’re not messing up their sentences in the course of production. (The difference here is that between Fay/Cutler malapropisms, which are a type of unintended glitches in word retrieval, and classical malapropisms, which are intended word choices, but out of whack with the practices of the larger speech community.)

You’re thinking that if we start down this road, than all sorts of ungrammaticalities or purportedly non-standard usages are going to get labeled as anacolutha, and you’re right. Duprie & Halsall, A Dictionary of Literary Devices, dives right in. Their definition is about as wide as you can get —

a breakdown in the syntactic construction of a sentence

and their examples are all over the map: dangling participles, resumptive pronouns (colloquial, even non-standard, but usually not any kind of production error), left dislocations (ditto), run-on sentences (“He couldn’t go, how could he?”), Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses (now this is anacoluthic), recastings and restartings of sentences, and (technically) unfinished sentences (“If you only knew” — though in this case the construction has become conventionalized as an optative). Grammarians, dialectologists, sociolinguists, discourse analysts, all of you, weep.

Fowler the Great, in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, produces two examples of considerable interest. In both, what’s going on, intuitively, is that you haven’t planned far enough ahead syntactically, so that at a later point you’re no longer aware that choices you made early on constrain your choices now, and you make a later choice that has the right semantics but fails to conform to the earlier determining material:

(1) Can I make you understand that if you don’t get reconciled to your father what is to happen to you?  [The earlier that should have committed you to a declarative rather than interrogative complement.]

(2) Pliny speaks of divers engaged in the strategy of ancient warfare, carrying tubes in their mouths & so drew in necessary air to their lungs.  [The earlier present participle carrying should have committed you to a parallel drawing rather than the past tense drew.]

These are failure-of-commitment anacolutha. Various types of determination by the nearest fall into this subcategory: the failed subject-verb agreement in

Everything from doorknobs to live alligators are for sale (NPR reporter, All Things Considered, 6/9/04)

Let’s see which one of the two of are are next (Beverly Hills 90210 episode)

and, possibly, the failure of verb-form parallelism in

She had never and was never going to wear it (NPR reporter, All Things Considered, 8/16/04)

They would delay, or not get tested at all, for sexually transmitted diseases (NPR reporter, Morning Edition, 8/14/02)

(though I have now come to think that this scheme of verb-form determination is simply the rule for a great many people and should probably be treated as now standard).

Failure-of-commitment anacoluthon is certainly to be distinguished from (inadvertent) syntactic blending (though it’s almost always possible to concoct a blend analysis) and possibly from shift anacoluthon of the Eisenhower type.

In any case, it’s not hard to see inadvertent blending and anacoluthon as subtypes of on-line glitches in sentence planning (distinct from positioning errors — doubling errors, either anticipatory or perseveratory, and exchange errors). If we can find a way to classify these planning errors as either blends or anacolutha, then we can ask whether there are symptoms of their difference — in particular, whether blends show a significantly higher amount of overlapping material than anacolutha. The overlap effect is very strong in morphological blends like chunnel, which doesn’t merely begin like channel and end like tunnel, but has both of the contributing words sharing almost all of their content with the blend (see Stefan Gries, “Shouldn’t it be breakfunch?”, Linguistics 42 (2004)).

Actually, I suspect that the classification of planning errors as blends or anacolutha will turn out not to be drastically hard –- once we have a corpus of anacolutha, in the proper understanding of that term. We do have a wonderful corpus of blend slips, thanks to Gerald Cohen’s 1987 Syntactic Blends in English Parole. Now to find, or create, a corpus of anacolutha.

4 Responses to “Remarks on anacoluthon”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    She had never and was never going to wear it : This kind of construction strikes me as a simple extension of the rule whereby one can omit a duplicated word. It’s just a question of what the definition of “word” is. For some, it must be an exact duplicate – and “worn =/= to wear” – but for others “wear” is “wear”, whether present, past, participle, infinitive, or whatever. I wouldn’t really class it as “not maintaining a consistent grammatical sequence”.

  2. pussonalamp Says:

    It’s almost as if anything could be anacoluthon, apart from – well, I can’t think of an exception.

  3. New frontiers in overlaps « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] occur as inadvertent blends; at the sentential level, such errors are a type of anacoluthon, which I’ve called shift anacoluthon (you start out producing one sentence, but at some point shift inadvertently […]

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