The lure of Low Attachment

From Gail Collins’s affectionate remiscence of Nora Ephron this morning in her NYT op-ed column (“The Best Mailgirl Ever”):

We talked about the grand saga of how the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement one afternoon while she was cooking lunch in the apartment on the East Side where she lived with her husband, Nick Pileggi.

I was envisioning the bad old days giving way to the women’s movement one afternoon right there in Ephron’s kitchen, but then I got to Nick Pileggi and realized I’d succumbed to the lure of Low Attachment, with the one afternoon while … adverbial modifying the lower clause the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement, rather than the higher clause we talked about the grand saga of how the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement. (On attachment ambiguities, see here and here.)

Low Attachment is the default, but other factors favor High Attachment in certain contexts. Here, real-world plausibility certainly favors High Attachment — but the head verb of the lower clause is considerably closer to the adverbial, which tempts the reader towards Low Attachment. Too bad.

On Ephron. The main NYT obit for Ephron was by Charles McGrath, here. In addition to Collins’s piece, Alessandra Stanley did one in the Style section, Janet Maslin one in the Movies section, and Julia Moskin one in the Dining and Wine section, and there’s more in the blogs. Nora Ephron was much loved in New York City.

I was gearing up to do a personal piece, but I don’t think I could improve on Nancy Friedman’s posting in her Fritinancy blog — except to say that Ann Daingerfield Zwicky was a great fan of her essays, and introduced me to them.

9 Responses to “The lure of Low Attachment”

  1. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    Is it really accurate to call low attachment “the default”? I know that’s pretty much Lyn Frazier’s view, but there’s also a substantial body of thought that says that syntax is just one of many factors that affects parsing.

    While I agree that there’s a pretty strong low-attachment garden path in the quote from Collins, that might be partially a function of the length of the lower clause. My sense is that the late-closure effect is not nearly is strong if the lower constituent is fairly short. (E.g., “We talked about the party yesterday” or “We talked about what he said yesterday.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Neal, the notion of default *means* that there are other considerations in choosing among competitors, but that when these don’t apply, the default holds. See my earlier postings on attachment.

  2. Nancy Friedman (@Fritinancy) Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Arnold!

  3. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    My question, which perhaps I didn’t make completely clear, is whether the late-closure “strategy”, out of all the other factors that can influence parsing, really deserves to be called the default. After all, don’t the other factors also apply in the absence of countervailing factors? If so, why isn’t one of them the default?

    The notion of “default” (for me at least) implies primacy or basicness (is there a better word for that), not just all-else-being-equal-ness.

    As I understand it, low attachment is indeed a default strategy under Lyn Frazier’s approach in that she argues that the parser looks to structural factors first, and only then takes account of other factors, whereas under the competing, constraint-based model, the different factors are in processed in parallel. My sense is that the proponents of the latter model wouldn’t pick out any one factor as the default.

  4. On the ambiguity watch « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I’ve written about many times —  here and here, for example — Low Attachment seems to be a default, but how things are likely to be […]

  5. Dance with the one that’s nearest? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The hurricane example is then formally like the example in my 6/18 posting on “The lure of Low Attachment” (here): […]

  6. Restriction and the marsupial | Ten minutes past deadline Says:

    […] with its definite article and encourages you to succumb to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls the Lure of Low Attachment – that is, instinctively reading a phrase as modifying only the thing closest to it, and not […]

  7. Dashed if I won’t | Ten minutes past deadline Says:

    […] the second dash without noticing it. An even likelier candidate is after the first dash – the Lure of Low Attachment again – until you realise, seven or eight words into the last clause, that it’s not really […]

  8. Catalonia vs Wallonia | Ten minutes past deadline Says:

    […] it, in preference to anything mentioned earlier (or “higher up”) in the sentence. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky says, “low attachment is the default, but other factors favor high attachment in certain […]

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