The apostrophe and a non-dangler

Katy Steinmetz on the TIME blog yesterday, in “Say It Aint So: The Movement to Kill the Apostrophe: On National Punctuation Day, here’s a look at efforts to obliterate the apostrophe and unleash a Wild West of unmarked possession”:

Today is the 10th annual National Punctuation Day, a high holiday on nerd calendars across these great United States. Its stated purpose is to be a celebration of underappreciated, misused marks like the semicolon and “the ever mysterious ellipsis.” But a better-known piece of punctuation has been getting some apocalyptic press and deserves attention on this day of celebration: the apostrophe.

Writers have renewed a question that has long plagued conservative grammarians, particularly since text messages came on the scene: Is it curtains for the apostrophe? “Trend lines don’t look all that promising for the long-term security of apostrophes as a standard in written English,” wrote Slate’s Matthew Malady, noting that the England-based Apostrophe Protection Society is on high alert. In his title he poses the rhetorical question of whether apostrophes are necessary, and in his subtitle he provides an answer: “Not really, no.”

There is some evidence to support the doubters, like the existence of strong anti-apostrophe evangelists. The Kill the Apostrophe website maintains that the apostrophe “serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who don’t.” George Bernard Shaw famously shunned those marks in his plays. And author James Harbeck penned a treatise just last week on why we would all be better off without the apostrophe, arguing that while they do give pedants a reason to gripe, they don’t add clarity, and most people improperly use them anyway.

Steinmetz concludes that the apostrophe is not seriously threatened, and even objectors like Malady and Harbeck don’t really expect that their proposals will carry the day.

NPD got coverage in many places. Here’s the beginning of Sonya Sorich’s piece in the Columbus (GA) Ledger-Enquirer, “National Punctuation Day 2013 is Sept. 24: Which common punctuation errors annoy you most?”:

Today (Sept. 24) is National Punctuation Day. Use commas responsibly.

Looking for ways to celebrate? “Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words,” according to the holiday’s website.

to which commenter Courtney Shove posted:

The quote in the second paragraph has a dangling modifier. The stroll isn’t paying close attention, but that’s how it reads.

No it doesn’t.  The quote is a perfectly ordinary default SPAR (subjectless predicational adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject) that obeys the Subject Rule (the referent is supplied by the subject of the clause); the only complexity is that the main clause is a (subjectless) imperative, with an implicit 2nd-person subject — so the sentence tells the addressee to take a leisurely stroll and pay close attention to store signs.

Where did Shove go wrong? Presumably Shove assumes the Nearest Rule for supplying the referent for the missing subject — the referent is provided by the nearest N (stroll, in this case) — but this is a hypothesis rather than a fact, and the Subject Rule is a much better hypothesis than the Nearest Rule. For clause-final SPARs (like the one above), in fact, the Subject Rule is especially strong, as I noted in a 2011 posting:

The preference is so strong that even when writers intend a final SPAR to pick up its referent from an immediately preceding NP, the result can be absurd, as in this example quoted in a comment on Language Log, here:

(8) Last Sunday’s Observer reported on the young man missing from home in the US for four years: “Yesterday Shawn and his family appeared at their home-town school in Missouri to talk to reporters. Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons.” (reported by Michael Quinion, World Wide Words, 1/20/07, in the “Sic!” section)

It’s hard not to read this as having Shawn festooned in posters and balloons.

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