Dance with the one that’s nearest?

On today’s Morning Edition on NPR, in the story “Without Heat, Sandy Victims [‘victims of the storm Sandy’, not ‘victims who are covered with sand’] Guard Their Homes”:

He’s living in a house that was partially flooded so it doesn’t get robbed – for a second time.

The sentence adverbial so it doesn’t get robbed … is clearly intended to modify the main clause (he’s living in a house …) — it offers a reason for this man to live in a house that was partially flooded — but some listeners probably had a moment of wondering about partially flooding the house so it doesn’t get robbed. The intended interpretation involves “high attachment” (HA), to the main clause preceding the so-adverbial, rather than “low attachment” (LA), to the relative clause within the main clause. It’s been noted again and again that LA is preferred in syntactic processing, but also noted (see here, for example) that this is only a default, with context, real-world knowledge, and discourse organization often favoring HA instead.

In the cases that people have looked at in terms of LA vs. HA, the issue is how some constituent C  is parsed with respect to preceding material: is it parsed with a lower, smaller predecessor constituent B or with a higher, more inclusive predecessor A (ending in B)? Since the head word of B (was (flooded) in the hurricane example above) will of necessity be nearer to C (the so-adverbial in this example) than the head of A (is (living) in this example) is, this preference is often thought of as a preference for attachment to the nearest, but it’s the structural relationships that are key here.

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

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 …

In this example (about Nora Ephron), C is the adverbial one afternoon while she was cooking lunch in the apartment on the East Side …; B is the the complement clause how the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement; and A is the main clause (ending in B) we talked about the grand saga of how the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement. HA, with C modifying A, is what the writer of the Ephron example (Gail Collins in the NYT) intended, but the head verb of B (gave way) is closer to C than the head verb of A (talked) is, and that’s why people who treat attachment to the nearest as dogma will insist that LA, with C modifying B, gives the only possible interpretation of the example, however unlikely that is in the real world.

So far, a HA case where C is a sentence adverbial so-clause (the hurricane example) and one where C is a sentence adverbial in NP + while-clause (the Ephron example). Now more HA examples from recent postings on this blog, with C of several other types.

C is a postnominal modifier (here, a PP): from “Wrapping it up” on 1/13 (here):

Perfect gift idea for men under $30

C is the PP under $30; B is the NP men; A is the NP perfect gift idea for men. Intended HA: C modifies A.

C is a VP adverbial (here, a PP): from “On the ambiguity watch” on 8/4 (here):

who is saved from being slaughtered by an intelligent spider named Charlotte

C is the PP by an intelligent spider named Charlotte; B is the VP slaughtered; A is the VP saved from being slaughtered. Intended HA: C modifies A.

C is a PP serving either as a modifier or an argument: from “Reversed blame” on 8/27/11  (here):

Obama blames Congress Republicans on bus tour

C is the PP on bus tour; B is the NP Congress Republicans (the NP1 argument of blame NP1 on NP2 ‘blame NP2 for NP1’); A is the VP blames Congress Republicans. Intended HA: C modifies A, rather than being a co-argument with B.

For balance, here’s a case where LA is intended, from the second of “Three headlines” on 10/25 (here):

Church offering class on books banned by Fremont school board

C is the postnominal modifier VPpsp banned by Fremont school board; B is the NP books; A is the NP class on books. Intended LA: C modifies B.

Final note: through a series of conceptual and terminological confusions, many usage writers have lumped the domain of attachment phenomena together with the domain of non-canonical SPARs (so-called “dangling modifiers”), but in fact the two sets of phenomena have nothing of significance to do with one another.



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