Annals of cataphora

From the Economist of 12/3/11, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws” [the magazine is fond of jokey titles], after a long first paragraph about medical marijuana boom in Colorado:

While it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business.

Now, (medical) marijuana is highly topical when this sentence comes along in the discourse. so that’s almost surely the referent of the subject pronoun it in the initial subordinate clause. Nevertheless, I expected this pronoun to be cataphoric, preferably with its referent picked up by the subject of the main clause — but that’s Colorado (where Colorado is paired with 16 states and the District of Columbia), and not a NP referring to marijuana. So I had a brief moment of unfulfilled expectation that wasn’t ironed out until medicinal pot came along, embedded within the main clause.

My reaction to this explicit pronoun subject it is much like many people’s reaction to zero subjects in initial sentence adverbials, in initial SPARs (subjectless predcative adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject). Sometimes the referent is given right there in the preceding context, but still we expect the zero to be cataphoric, preferably to the subject of the main clause.

This brings me to a message from Geoff Pullum on the 3rd of this month, expressing surprise that he got a “dangler” reaction to this sentence on an NPR blog:

The sheriff’s office said that hours after ___ releasing the [sea-cow] pictures to  the public, 52-year-old Ana Gloria Garcia Gutierrez turned herself  in to police. (link) [the underlines mark the position of the missing subject]

Geoff went on to explain:

Ms Gutierrez was NOT the one who released the pictures; it was the sherriff’s office.  And the correct NP to provide the gerund-participial “release” clause with a subject is right there, preceding it, in the same sentence.  Yet still, I found, despite already knowing who released the pictures of Ms Gutierrez illegally riding a sea cow, I got the wrong target of predication coming through, and did the standard one-second double-take and re-reading.  The urge for cataphoric resolution of absent subjects of non-finite clauses when they are preposed adjuncts seems to be very strong.

The two cases are strikingly similar, in having:

(a) a sentence-initial adverbial introduced by a subordinator (while it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC; (hours) after ___ releasing the pictures to  the public);

(b) a subject in this adverbial that requires a referent (the pronoun it in the first example, underlined in (a); the missing subject in the second, represented by underlines in (a));

(c) material preceding the adverbial that supplies this referent (medical marijuana throughout the first paragraph in the first example; the sheriff’s office in the second); and

(d) a main-clause subject not coreferential with the subject in (b) (Colorado in the first example; 52-year-old Ana Gloria Gutierrez in the second) — despite a default preference for it to be

(Note that I collected the first example long before Geoff turned up the second, so my reaction to it wasn’t colored by Geoff’s reaction to the second — with which I agree.)

It’s easy to construct an even more perfect SPAR parallel to the first example:

[marijuana example, overt pronoun] while it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business

[marijuana example, covert pronoun] while ___ allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business

In any case, the expectation seems to be the same for overt and for covert subjects, and strongly biasing preceding context doesn’t fully override that expectation in this case. Let me stress “in this case”, because in other cases, preceding context successfuly guides the reader to the intended referent (for covert subjects as well as overt subjects); every so often I discuss SPAR examples of this sort.

At the moment, I don’t have an account of what’s going on in the marijuana sentence or the sea-cow pictures sentence, but am just trying to be clear about what’s surprising about them.


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