After VPprp

From my files on things on the outer edge of the Danglerverse, this example I overheard at a local restaurant on July 5:

(1) After reading that book, it puts it all together.

Apparently a “dangling participle”, a species of non-canonical SPAR (brief discussion here). After reading that book is an adjunct to the main clause (it’s a sentence modifier), and it’s missing a subject for read, the referent of which has to be supplied from context; in this case, the referent is clearly the speaker, so that (1) is understood in the same way as

(1′) After reading that book, it puts it all together for me.

(with an explicit benefactive/experiencer in the main clause). (1′) is still, apparently, a non-canonical SPAR: the controller for the missing subject in the adjunct is not supplied by the Subject Rule.

But you can see that something more complex is going on here if you supply an explicit subject for read:

(2) After/Once I/I’d read that book, it puts it all together for me.

Now we have a tense problem (which was masked by the non-finite PRP form in (1)): the subordinate clause and main clause disagree in tense in an ugly way. Fixing this to give something like the speaker’s probable intent:

(2′) After/Once I/I’d read that book, it put it all together for me.

This still doesn’t fly, but at least it’s clear that the central problem has to do with the subject it of the main clause and how it relates to the content of the initial subordinate constituent (a finite clause in (2) and (2′), a subjectless PRP clause in (1) and (1′)).

(The object it in the main clause is irrelevant to my current topic, though far from uninteresting. It’s a kind of generic direct object, akin to things or the whole thing.)

The ultimate point is that (1) and (1′) are understood as rough paraphrases of

(3) Reading that book puts/put it all together (for me).

which, unlike all the examples that have gone before, is entirely standard English. It’s informal, thanks to the idiom put it (all) together, but otherwise the subjectless VPprp is unremarkable, since subjectless arguments, as opposed to adjuncts, are commonplace. (They pick up the referents of their missing subjects from context, in a complex way.)

In this light, let’s go back to (1). Now it seems like the subject it of the main clause there is not a “dummy subject” at all, but instead an anaphoric pronoun with reading that book as its antecedent. That is, it’s a cousin of Left Dislocation examples like

(4) Reading that book, it/that puts/put it all together (for me).

parallel to things like

Billy, he is/was  friend of mine.

The effect of Left Dislocation — with an initial adjunct NP, which is coreferential with a pronoun in the main clause — is to introduce a sentence topic (the referent of that adjunct NP and of the pronoun), after whch the main clause says something about that referent. (Yes, there’s also Right Dislocation.)

A while ago on Language Log, I talked about a related sort of example, under the heading “by-topicalization” (“by-dislocation” might be a better label), as in the boldfaced clause in

(5) Roach hopes that by talking about Drew’s autism, it will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it.

As I made clear there, such things are non-standard, and condemned by composition teachers, but they’re not inadvertent errors; they’re attempts to mark sentence topics — indeed, to mark them with a preposition that gives information connecting the sentence topic to the clause that follows (by for cause or effect; in (1), after for temporal sequence). (5) is a non-standard counterpart to the standard

(5′) Roach hopes that talking about Drew’s autism will spur more research and assistance for families affected by it.

in which talking about Drew’s autism is the grammatical subject of the boldfaced clause and also refers to the topic of that clause; in (5), subject and topic are separately marked.

P-dislocation (with the P by or after or, in some cases, in, plus VPprp), like Left Dislocation, is not for formal writing (its natural home is informal speech or writing with a conversational tone), but it’s not an inadvertent error. It’s also not a non-canonical SPAR, though it looks like one.

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