Disregarding context

From an earlier posting on danglerology, a promissory note:

[this example] 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.)


(1) After writing a book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.

(1) has no overt subject for the predicate writing a book, and such sentence adjuncts require that the referent of this subject be supplied (they are SPARs, in my terminology); a general principle, the Subject Rule, says that this referent is supplied by the subject of the main clause (the clause the adjunct modifies). But what’s the status of the Subject Rule?

Two possibilities:

(Absolutism) The Subject Rule is an absolute. (1) doesn’t satisfy it, so it’s ungrammatical.

(Contextuality) The Subject Rule is a default. (1) is potentially ambiguous, in many ways: the referent of the missing subject might be supplied by the subject of the main clause, or by the NP Harry within the main clause, or from the (linguistic or nonlinguistic) context; (1) is grammatical, but it might or might not be felicitous, in one or another of these interpretations, depending on context.

Almost all of what people have written on “dangling modifiers” takes the absolutist position (or a version of it with another principle standing in for the Subject Rule), just assumes it without argument. As I looked at the data over the years, increasingly I came to think that contextualism had to be the right way to look at things, and Geoff Pullum’s shifted too, to the point where he was willing to say that certain examples of “danglers” were certainly a kind of mistake or offense, but not in grammar — rather in politeness, having to do with failures to take the recipients’ (the readers’ or hearers’) view into account and so to court difficulties with their processing of what you have produced. (Other violations of the Subject Rule aren’t mistakes of any kind.)

How do people get to the absolutist position? The full journey is twisted and complicated, but the crucial midpoint is where the Subject Rule comes to be seen not as a rule of thumb but as a rule of grammar (for standard English). Once you buy that, then there’s no point in looking at context; context can’t ameliorate ungrammaticality. Kisses pleases me (with kisses understood as the plural of the common noun kiss ‘act of kissing’) is not standard English, and no amount of preceding or following linguistic context or scene-setting story-telling can change that. So, the story goes, for (1).

So almost everyone writing about “danglers” cites examples isolated from context of any kind and bereft of background knowledge about the substance of the text. The internal content of the examples is almost entirely irrelevant, in this view; (1′) is just as bad as (1):

(1′) After globbing a fenstruck, it seems that Beezush is corpotent.

If you trust fully in absolutism, then anything of the form

After VPprp, it seems that Clause.

is ungrammatical.

So now the question is: How did people come to have such faith in absolutism?

Two steps, I think:

formulating a proscription (to which a prescription is the remedy); and

promoting the prescription from advice about effective speaking and writing — advice about style, usage, and rhetoric, with concern for the social setting, the nature of the audience, the relationship between speakers/writers and this audience, and the intended purposes of the speech or writing — to a rule of grammar, regulating what is acceptable as standard.

Both steps are complex. A very compact account of the first step, from my Adventures in the Advice Trade proposal (the whole proposal is here):

The advice literature is, at root, corrective, that is to say proscriptive.  With one exception …, language advisers begin with examples that they treat as errors of some kind, requiring correction.  Strictures are then formulated so as to cover these, and alternative, acceptable, variants are suggested.  Don’t write this, write this.  Proscription first – don’t split infinitives, don’t end sentences with prepositions (in technical terminology, don’t strand prepositions), don’t use hopefully to mean ‘I hope that, it is to be hoped that’ (in technical terminology, don’t use it as a speaker-oriented sentence adverbial) – prescription later.

Once someone has identified an issue with specific examples, then they’re going to want to generalize from the cases they’ve seen and formulate a principle. (A deep difference between the advice literature and the linguistic literature is that advisers don’t view such principles as empirical claims, so they’re largely blind to the kind of disconfirming evidence that might have led them to refining, sharpening, or even abandoning their principles.) The principles simultaneously proscribe some usages and prescribe the replacement.

But what kind of beast is a principle of this sort? Four things, often working together, drive some of the advice literature towards thinking of these principles as rules of grammar:

(A) An impoverished view of the ways in which the use of language can be governed, in which It’s All Grammar (conventions of spelling and punctuation, linguistic politeness, word and construction choice according to style and register, and much much more). What could these principles be but rules of grammar?

(B) The idea that the language is the formal written standard variety, so that all deviations from this are equally violative. This sweeps all sorts of variety differences in with inadvertent errors. It’s All Mistakes. Mistakes in grammar.

(C) The idea that there’s always One Right Way. The Rules of Grammar stipulate the wrong ways and offer the right ones in their place.

(D) A program that not only stipulates the One Right Way, but also maintains — by “grammatical reasoning” or “grammatical logic” — that this way is necessarily right, because it follows from first principles (two negatives make a positive, conjuncts must be parallel in form, modifiers must come as closely as possible to the words they modify, all sentences must be complete, potential ambiguity is to be avoided, and so on).

For SPARs, all of this leads to absolutism, in which case examples stand on their own in majestic isolation, and linguistic context, discourse organization, the background knowledge of the participants, their intentions, etc. are all beside the point.

That would be a nice crisp easy world to live in, but it’s not the real world.

More to come.

6 Responses to “Disregarding context”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    It seems to me that sentences of the “it seems” sort don’t really have a subject – oh, they have a syntactic dummy subject, but really their semantic subject is the “that …” clause. And it seems perfectly reasonable to me to take the subject of that one.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    Clearly, an extraposed subject is a subject still for the purposes of the Subject Rule. Note that the letter of The Law would be met by left-dislocating “Harry”
    (1′) After writing a book, Harry it seems is at loose ends.

  3. The context of danglers « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 7/24/11, Disregarding context. Link. […]

  4. It’s All Grammar « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 7/24/11: Disregarding context (link) […]

  5. Dangler rage « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I said on the matter last year: How do people get to the absolutist [vs. the contextualist] position? The full journey is twisted […]

  6. Possessive controller for SPAR « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] There are two main contributions to this attitude.  First, there’s his treatment of the Subject Rule as absolute and inviolable, a rule of English grammar, not just a default stylistic choice; for discussion of the (complex) reasoning that would lead someone to this conclusion, see my “Disregarding context”, here. […]

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