Dangling in the comics

Via Bert Vaux on Facebook, this Cyanide and Happiness cartoon (from 10/24/10):

Putting aside the matter of paternal-filial relationships, there’s a (possible) syntactic point here (which is why Vaux posted the cartoon), in:

A: Despite being an agnostic, I think Jesus Christ allegedly did some pretty cool stuff.

B takes his to be presupposing that Jesus was an agnostic, while A intended to convey that he, A, is an agnostic.

A’s intended reading is, in fact, the one that sticklers would insist on: the missing subject of the SPAR despite being an agnostic is provided by the Subject Rule (it’s picked out by the subject of the main clause, I), but B treats A’s sentence as having a non-canonical SPAR (a “dangling modifier”), with the missing subject picked out by another, later, NP in the main clause, Jesus Christ.

Sticklers insist, as I’ve pointed out any times, that this is a syntactic point, that the Subject Rule is a rule of grammar, while Geoff Pullum and I have claimed that the Subject Rule is is just a default, and that violations of it are grammatical, though sometimes hard to process and likely to lead to misunderstanding, therefore inconsiderate.

In the case at hand, I’d claim that A’s sentence is in fact ambiguous, according to whether A’s I think is understood as an assertion about A’s thought or a modifier (effectively, a parenthetical) of A’s claim Jesus Christ was an agnostic; the first parsing (in which the sentence is about A and his beliefs) gives A’s intended interpretation, the second (in which the sentence is about Jesus) gives B’s understanding. Discourse topicality is important.

On the webcomic Cyanide and Happiness, see here.

As it happens, today’s strip has another linguistic point:

The cop’s question seems to be a complex rhetorical question, asserting that the driver was going very fast and (incidentally) asking if the driver knows how fast, but it turns out that the cop was straightforwardly asking the latter question, just asking for information.

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