Two danglers

Two examples of non-canonical SPARs (commonly called “dangling modifiers”), both of which point to the importance of discourse context in understanding these expressions: one from 2007 that doesn’t work at all well, one from this week that works much better.

Back in September 2007, this e-mail message from Amy Einsohn (author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook):

The following sentence caught my eye in last Sunday’s NY Times magazine:

[(1)] Like Caitlyn, Marguerite’s serious problems date from middle school. [NY Times, August 5, 2007. “What Are Autistic Girls Made Of?” by Emily Bazelon, Sunday magazine, page 41]

I replied:

It caught my eye, too. I had trouble with it. The problem is that in this sentence the discourse topic shifts from Caitlyn to Marguerite; Marguerite hadn’t been mentioned for some time [several pages, in fact; the preceding material was a long section about Marguerite. Caitlyn had been the topic of the preceding material]. If Marguerite had been topical at this point in the discourse, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed the sentence.

Einsohn asked if I’d consider this syntax unremarkable? acceptable? incorrect? I answered:

I don’t think the syntax is bad, but the sentence is inept in this context.

Would I label it a dangling modifier? faulty parallelism? a disjointed appositive?

Sticklers would classify it as a dangling modifier. But the tradition in these things is so messed up, both conceptually and terminologically, that i’m reluctant to use the traditional terms at all.

… What we’re looking at is SPARs — subjectless predicational adjuncts requiring a referent (to play the semantic role of the missing subject). The canonical SPAR picks up its referent from the subject of the clause the modifier is adjoined to. The tradition is to label all non-canonical SPARs “dangling modifiers”, but in fact there’s a collection of circumstances in which there’s nothing wrong with non-canonical SPARs. (And the notion of discourse topicality plays a major role in these.)

Your classic SPARs — in particular, the ones with participles in them — have obvious gaps in them, but there are subtler cases, including various prepositional phrases: at the age of NUM, at age NUM, as a NP, (un)like NP. That’s where like Caitlin comes in: it’s a SPAR, and it’s non-canonical, because it picks up its referent not from the subject (Marguerite’s serious problems), but from a possessive NP (Marguerite’s) within the subject. But for this to work, the referent has to be topical in the discourse — and Marguerite is not. So the reader is briefly taken aback and has to work out what the writer’s intent must have been.

Notice that this analysis depends on going beyond sentence (1) considered in isolation to look at the discourse context in which it’s situated: the article has an initial section in which Caitlyn and Marguerite are introduced, then a long section on Caitlyn, and then (beginning with (1)) the article shifts to Marguerite. If Marguerite had been the subject of the sentence, as in

(1′) Like Caitlyn, Marguerite had serious problems from middle school on.

then the shift would have been relatively easy to manage (though it would have been a boon to the readers to remind us who Marguerite is), since Marguerite in (1′) is in the default location for referent-finding in SPARs — subject position, which is highly associated with discourse topicality, so that it’s relatively easy to understand that Marguerite has now become topical.

Now on to this week, giving the sentence first without context:

(2) Calling it a survey, it is both his first solo show at Stanford and also the first time photographs from all four of his major projects are exhibited together. (Janet Duca Norton, “The captured moment: Cantor Arts Center opens two impressive photography shows”, IMAGE Magazine (Bay Area Daily News), March 2011, p. 14)

The reader’s task is to work out who or what calls it a survey (the sentence-initial SPAR is a present-participial VP). The default is to look to the subject of the main clause, but that’s it, apparently coreferential with the it of calling it a survey — but then the SPAR would have to be calling itself a survey, with a reflexive pronoun (just as in Calling himself an idiot, Jack apologized). So we need to look elsewhere.

Reading on in the sentence, we discover that it refers to his first solo show at Stanford, whoever the male artist is. But this exercise is silly; (2) comes in a discourse context. Here it is with the preceding sentence:

(3) The Stanford show is one of five solo shows this year for Leo Rubinfien. Calling it a survey, it is both his first solo show at Stanford and also the first time photographs from all four of his major projects are exhibited together.

Now (2) is a lot easier to understand: Leo Rubinfien is in the preceding sentence, and there are two occurrences of his in (2) that now can be seen to refer to Rubinfien, so it’s almost surely Rubinfien who’s calling the show a survey. (There are other possible understandings, but then referent-finding is almost never a sure thing.)

A still larger discourse context helps even more. The article comes in three main parts, just like the autistic girls story in which (1) occurs: an initial section (only two short paragraphs) introducing the two exhibits and the photographers they showcase, Helen Levitt and Leo Rubinfien; then a section (of four paragraphs) on Levitt and her work; and then a long section on Rubinfien and his work (plus a coda with practical information about the exhibits and events surrounding them).

The crucial thing is that (3), like (1), begins a section with a new topic. But the first sentence in (3) sets up the topic shift from Levitt to Rubinfien and so prepares us to process the non-canonical SPAR in the next sentence, (2) (while the shift in (1) is abrupt).

Now, (2) still takes a bit of work, and some might prefer an easier-to-process rewriting. But to my mind it’s a great deal easier than (1). (Of course, some people are wedded intellectually, and possibly emotionally, to the Subject Rule, and there’s no satisfying them.)

(By the way, I have not yet seen the Cantor Art Center photography exhibits.)


4 Responses to “Two danglers”

  1. Amy Einsohn Says:

    I have a short list of these that I use in a “grammar headaches for copyeditors” workshop that I teach in Berkeley. Some of my students insist that all of the following are drop-dead impermissible in print–even as they admit that their rewrites are awkward or change the intended emphasis (topic) of the sentence. We looked at eight examples last year:
    1. After hovering at historic lows, the Fed is ready to raise interest rates.
    2. As an evacuee, the federal government is subsidizing her down payment.
    3. At almost $5 billion a year, critics charge the program is too expensive.
    4. Once over the Gulf, forecasters expect [hurricane] Gustav to gain strength.
    5. “Like my colleagues, my phone has been ringing off the hook.” [NY Times, quote, interview]
    6. Even with an excellent credit history, the bank denied John’s request for a loan.
    7. As with Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it is impossible to calculate the full effect Mr. Jackson had on the world of music. [Brooks Barnes, NY Times, June 26, 2009, p. 1]
    8. As a fellow Tourette’s syndrome sufferer, Mr. Matovic’s story has given me hope that . . . [Annette Racond, NY Times, Aug. 10, 2004, Science section, p. D5]

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Nice collection, which I’ll add to my files.

      I have no trouble with many of these, even as sentences with no context. But I suspect that all would improve enormously if the context were supplied. Of course, then you’d have to confront the idea that “danglers” are ungrammatical (so that context would be irrelevant) — which Geoff Pullum does, again and again, though I fear there may be no getting around the damage done by teachers.

  2. Annals of danglerology « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] people wouldn’t have noticed this, but since I’m a scholar of SPARs (here and here), I caught the subjectless predicational adverbial requiring a referent for the […]

  3. The Danglerology Project « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] On SPARs: AZ on LLog, 5/21/08: Why are some summatives labeled “vague”? (link) On AZBlog, 3/2/11: Dangling advice (link) On AZBlog, 3/5/11 (link) […]

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