as a SPAR

From a few weeks ago, Armistead Maupin, interviewed on NPR about Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage:

A lot of pundits have been kind of analyzing, oh, what does it mean and why did he do it. But as a gay man who’s been an activist for almost 40 years now, it was an extraordinarily moving thing to hear an unequivocal statement to the effect that gay love was the equal to opposite sex and attraction.

The relevant bit is boldfaced: a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject) that’s non-canonical, in that the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause); such non-canonical SPARs, or X-SPARS, are popularly known as “dangling modifiers”, a condemnatory label. But some types of X-SPARs are in fact acceptable (except to those who have internalized the teaching that X-SPARs are necessarily ungrammatical), and the Maupin sentence falls into not one, but two, of these types.

As I wrote in a posting about the role of context in interpreting X-SPARs, there are

cases where, even without context, X-SPARs … are acceptable:

(as-a SPAR) As a linguist, this work impressed me greatly

(dummy subject) After writing that book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.

The Maupin sentence is an as-a SPAR with a dummy subject (it) in the main clause — something that only a knee-jerk anti-dangler would object to.

Last summer, as part of a summer internship at Stanford, Megan O’Neil went through my extensive files of X-SPAR examples and collected several subtypes, in particular the type coded ASA (for as a). An enormous number, most of them entirely unproblematic. A few that are coded both ASA and IT (for it-subject), a configuration in which the main-clause subject cannot supply the referent for the missing subject in the adjunct:

AB17. As rational human beings, it is our right to choose the option that  is best for us. (“The Straight Dope on Hemp,” Don Waters) (link)

AB35. “As doctors, it doesn’t cross our consciousness that the patient  might not make it,” (Dr. Bob Arnold, University of Pittsburgh) (link)

Z3.83. As a writer, poet and amateur philosopher, it concerns me that the gay rights “movement” has, in my view, no sustained collective conscience. (November/December 2004 Lambda Book Report, p. 5, letter from Dennis Rhodes of Provincetown MA)

Z3.440. 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. (Victor Mair on Language Log, here)

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

Then some ASA examples with inanimate subjects other than dummy it in the main clause (since the missing subject in the adjunct in these examples has to be human, these examples are also unproblematic):

Z1.3. As a linguist, what struck me especially about his work on meaning in natural language was his belief that… (Stanley Peters, In Memoriam Jon Barwise, 2000)

Z3.136. As a practicing Muslim, this documentary reminded me of God’s grace and mercy, and how we can learn so much from the world around us. (letter to NYT Science Times, 9/20/05, p. D4, from Khadjia S. Amjad (of Washington DC), about the film “March of the Penguins”)

Z3.195. As a doctoral student in literature investigating [X], my project places me at the center of research in the humanities. (statement of significance by candidate for Stanford dissertation fellowship, 2007)

Z3.350. As a Permanent Absentee voter, your absentee ballot will be mailed soon (Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, information about polling places for the 2/5/08 primary)

Z3.362. As a Jew, there were many groups urging him to … (NPR Morning Edition story 8/8/08 on Jewish Olympian in 1936)

Z3.415. Interesting example of an easy-to-parse “dangler” on KCBS for a couple of weeks: “As a mother of four, my house is …” (David Green, comment on Pullum Language Log posting, 10/9/09)

And then ASA examples where the as NP differs in number from the subject in the main clause (so that the main-clause subject is ineligible as the source of the missing subject in the adjunct):

Z2.8. As a lawyer, people ask me for advice all the time. (Berg & Associates tv commercial, seen Nov. 2001)

Z2.10. As a child growing up in Mexico, my parents always told me… (KQED commentary, 1/21/02)

Z3.33. As a ballerina, such food items [doughnuts] are forbidden to me. (Mike McKinley on soc.motss, 8/28/03)

Z3.387b. As a child, the doctors found out my organs were reversed–a symptom of the disease. (link)

But when the main-clause subject is indeed eligible as the source of the missing subject in the adjunct, you’re in trouble. One example (from a fair number):

Z3.341. As a contributor, I thought you might be interested in seeing it. (from Brett Reynolds, at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Toronto, 11/17/07: “Yesterday our president sent out an e-mail about a list of faculty publications with the following”)

The Subject Rule is powerful enough as a heuristic for interpreting SPARs that this example will probably hang up the reader; the first interpretation you’re likely to get is that the writer (the president of the Humber Institute) was a contributor, and then on reflection you realize that the writer’s intention was to say that you (the recipient of the message) were a contributor. So this is a problematic X-SPAR; it’s inconsiderate of the reader.

4 Responses to “as a SPAR”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Fascinating – I’ll be using some of this, thanks.

  2. Greg Lee Says:

    Unlike the other “it” examples, this model,

    (dummy subject) After writing that book, it seems that Harry is at loose ends.

    could probably be followed by a tag

    , isn’t he.

    with he referring back to Harry as though that was the main clause subject.

  3. Stray books « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] [Yes, that sentence has a non-canonical SPAR, also known as a "dangling modifier". I wrote the sentence without reflecting on it or noticing the non-canonical SPAR in it, but I'm sticking by it; see my discussion of acceptable as-a SPARs here.] […]

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

    […] background, from my posting on a class of “dangling modifiers” that are, ceteris paribus, acceptable, involving […]

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