Dangler rage

It’s been a while since I posted about the absolutist (vs. the contextualist) position on subjectless predicational adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject (SPARs, for short), namely that they must obey the Subject Rule (that the missing subject of the adjunct must be supplied by subject of the clause it’s adjoined to); if a SPAR doesn’t obey the Subject Rule, it’s labeled a “dangler” and is judged, by absolutists, to be always ungrammatical, regardless of context, discourse organization, or real-life plausibility. So examples like

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

are rejected as irredeemably ungrammatical by some writers. For them, the Subject Rule is a matter of God’s Truth, not a preference in referent-finding.

What I said on the matter last year:

How do people get to the absolutist [vs. the contextualist] 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 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 …

Now two recent instances of absolutist criticism.

First , from Ben Zimmer, who wrote in e-mail a couple of days ago about this sentence from Salon:

Initiated by the Bush administration in 2007, the Obama administration has extended the Merida Initiative indefinitely. (link)

which a friend of a friend of Ben’s ranted about on Facebook:

The way the above sentence is constructed, it reads like the Obama administration was initiated by the Bush administration in 2007. The political content of the sentence is irrelevant – I’ve seen this crop up EVERYWHERE… Writers, please stop doing this. Thank you.

As usual, the sentence is taken out of context. Here it is in context:

The centerpiece of US policy on Mexico is the Merida Initiative, a US government program that has spent $1.3 billion on “training and equipping Mexican security forces engaged in counterdrug efforts,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Initiated by the Bush administration in 2007, the Obama administration has extended the Merida Initiative indefinitely. This money has gone to federal police and the military, which have been deployed throughout Mexico to crackdown on drug cartels.

In fact, this portion of the story is about the Merida Initiative; in the context, the initiative is discourse-topical, and that makes it easier for readers to find the intended referent for the missing subject. Possibly not as easy as you might like, though — but the point is that these are matters of relative processing ease, not simple grammaticality.

My second example came up in a dyspeptic review (Robert Gottlieb’s “A Very Lush Garland of Writers” of John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, New York Review of Books 8/16/12 (p. 76):

Did any editor or copy editor [at Yale Univ. Press] even glance at the text before it was automatically reprinted from the British edition? A standard proofreading could at least have spared us the danglers (a single example will suffice: “Once read, one will never forget the rabbit …”)

Again, out of context. Here’s more context:

But of the great novelists of his time, Hardy qualifies as the most thoughtful, and most morbidly sensitive, spectator of hangings. Hanging is central to the short stories ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘The Three Strangers’. Once read, one will never forget the rabbit (‘hanged by the leg’) squealing night-long in Jude the Obscure, nor Little Father Time and his two siblings hanged by the neck, on the clothes-hook in the lodging-house wardrobe.

This time, I don’t think the context helps at all. We don’t get the material supplying the missing referent until we come to Jude the Obscure (which hasn’t been recently mentioned in this chapter on Hardy) later in, and fairly deeply embedded in, the sentence. Until then, we cast around for possibilities: certainly not the generic reader referred to by one; maybe the two short stories just mentioned; or what?

Gottlieb is right to complain. This is inconsiderate writing.

We take these things case by case.


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