Annals of danglerology

Volume 59, No. 1 (March 2011) of the journal Names (the journal of the American Name Society) arrived on Monday, and I immediately noticed Frank Nuessel’s article “A note on the names of mathematical problems and puzzles” — noticed it because I was trained as a mathematician many years ago and published in and taught mathematical linguistics for some time (and sort-of-married into a nest of mathematicians: my husband-equivalent Jacques’s father and older brother were both mathematics professors).

Interesting piece, though it’s just a scratch into the immense range of material available.

What then caught my eye was the very first sentence:

While writing a paper entitled “The Representation of Mathematics in the Media” for a weeklong symposium …, it became evident that many mathematical problems, puzzles, conjectures, and equations had specific names attached to them.

Most 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 subject.

I realized that it was a non-canonical SPAR — picking up the required referent from something other than the subject of the clause the adverbial modifies (a “dummy”, or placeholder, it in this case) but instead picking it up from elsewhere in the clause, in fact from an understood experiencer of be evident, the speaker/writer, that is, Nuessel himself. (Note that Nuessel is the editor of the journal, not some neophyte laborer in the fields of academe.)

And I realized that it was perfectly fine. Nuessel could have made the experiencer explicit — became evident to me — though that would seem unnecessary in context (Omit Needless Words!), since it’s clear he’s reporting on personal experience, so for the moment he’s the most salient/topical referent in the context.

But if he’d made himself explicit as the experiencer, the adverbial in the sentence would still count as a “dangler” for people who are fanatic about such things. Here I throw up my hands and cry out, “Don’t you people know how to understand what other people say?”

Nuessel’s sentence is about as good as you can get with non-canonical SPARs: dummy subject, experiencer controller for the missing subject, 1sg controller in a context of personal narrative. (I have a number of parallel examples in my huge collection of danglers.) It’s unremarkable.

But it illustrates that the acceptability of such sentences depends not merely on their internal syntactic structure, but also on their place in a larger discourse. (For a later posting: why so many people have thought otherwise.)

5 Responses to “Annals of danglerology”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now, from Victor Mair on Language Log:

    Over at “Pinyin news,” Mark Swofford has just made a very welcome post entitled “Spreading the good news.” As a long-time, strong advocate of phonetically annotated character texts, it is indeed good news to note that great strides are being made in the automatic insertion of pinyin annotations in character files.

  2. Gary Says:

    Isn’t “it became evident[to me]” just academic-speak for “I noticed” or “I realized”?

    Is this an argument in favor of rule-ordering? The sentence-adverbial gets added before the objectivizing transformation.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Agreed on the register of “it became evident [to me]”. On the possibility of a rule-ordering argument, I’m going to assume that your suggestion was tongue-in-cheek.

  3. Disregarding context « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] an earlier posting on danglerology, a promissory note: [this example] illustrates that the acceptability of such […]

  4. as a SPAR « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (In general, dummy it as subject allows for quite a range of X-SPARs; one example is discussed here.) […]

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