Another split antecedent dangler

Back in January I looked at a racy dangler in final position in its clause, where the referent for the missing subject was picked up from a combination of the subject of the clause and an oblique object in the clause; the antecedent was split between two different elements in the clause. Now this morning in a KQED Perspectives column by Steven Moss (“Transformation”), another split-antecedent dangler, less racy and now in clause-initial position.

January’s example, from gay porn:

Morgan Black spices up his sex life with Christopher Daniels by soaking him in piss before fucking each other.

My commentary:

Two sentence-final subjectless predicational adjuncts there, and they both need something to supply the referent of the missing subject (they are SPARs): by soaking him with piss, which picks up a referent for its missing subject from the subject of the main clause, Morgan Black; and before fucking each other, which the writer of the copy clearly intended to pick up a referent for its missing subject from the *combination of* the subject of the main clause (Morgan Black again) and the oblique object in that clause, Christopher Daniels. The first exercise in referent-finding is just the default Subject Rule for these things, so there’s no issue. The second exercise in referent-finding is non-default, requiring before fucking each other to be interpreted as ‘before they fuck each other’, where they refers to the set-theoretic union of Black and Daniels (and the semantics of each other then tells you that Black will fuck Daniels and Daniels will fuck Black, as indeed happens in the flick — this is called flip-fucking in the trade). I understand the writer’s intent, but the non-default SPAR is beyond my comfort zone in this case. A dangler too far.

I had less trouble with this morning’s split antecedent, at least when the preceding context is supplied — though it was still challenging enough that I noticed it. Here it is with considerable context (with the crucial sentence boldfaced):

My wife Debbie and I have an adage: if you see someone you know but don’t normally encounter multiple times in a short period, the universe or God is trying to tell you something. When I saw my cousin walking past my house I mentioned it to my siblings and thought nothing more of it. Weeks later, when I spotted my relative in a cafe, I knew I was supposed to learn something.

Growing up on different coasts, I rarely saw Charles. His family lived on the East Coast. We didn’t see them more than once a year.

The first paragraph establishes that the writer and his cousin are what the passage is about; the two of them are jointly the topics of the discourse. That facilitates retrieving the union of the two as the referent of the missing subject of the PRP VP growing up on different coasts — one from the subject of the main clause, the other from the direct object. Still, it’s something of an interpretive challenge. When the subject is explicit, as here,

since/because we grew up on different coasts, I rarely saw Charles

there’s no interpretive problem (even out of context); split antecedents for an overt pronoun like we are routine and unproblematic for speakers (though they present an interesting puzzle in analysis). (Disregard the fact that we’re looking at cataphora here: the “antecedent” follows, rather than precedes, the “anaphor”. The phenomenon is sometimes known as “backwards anaphora”.) “Zero anaphora”, as in SPARs, presents more of an interpretive challenge, because we have no direct information about the person and number of the missing subject. (The Subject Rule provides a default solution to this challenge.)



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