Why is this so hard to process?

From Chris Waigl, passed on by Chris Hansen:


The problem begins with the subject, a longboat full of Vikings. The (syntactic) head of this phrase is certainly longboat (and that’s what determines agreement on the verb), but it’s functioning here semantically / pragmatically as as an expression of measure, much like a collective noun. So the question is whether the subject is “about” a longboat or “about” Vikings. (Animate beings, especially humans, are especially favored as topics, ceteris paribus, so we should probably look to the Vikings.)

At the same time, the first sentence introduces the British Museum and the Palace of Westminster, implicitly (but quite subtly) introducing the Members of Parliament as entities in the discourse, though probably not as the topic.

Then we get the second sentence, which is clearly about Vikings (uncivilized, destructive, and rapacious), not boats (or the Members of Partliament, for that matter).

Why am I mentioning all this? Because that second sentence begins with a SPAR (a subjectless predicative adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject), and though the default is for the subject of the main clause to supply this referent, this referent-finding not infrequently looks to discourse topics — in which case, Vikings should certainly be on our minds.

Unfortunately, the second sentence has the MPs as its subject, and Vikings aren’t mentioned at all, except very indirectly via the mention of the vessel, that is, the longboat in which they sailed.

So the problem is that the passage has too many possibly relevant entities floating around, only diffusely and implicitly connected. If readers falls back on the subject of the second sentence to supply the referent for missing subject of the SPAR, we end up, alas, with uncivilized, destructive, and rapacious MPs and have to piece out what the writer must have intended (presumably not that). We can work it out, but it takes real work. The passage is, as Geoff Pullum has said in a number of other such cases, inconsiderately written.

[Addendum, later in the day: a number of readers (including Chris Waigl herself) assumed that the problems with the passage were intentional — that it was a joke, or, more pointedly, satire. So I asked Chris about the source and the intentions of the original writer(s). She responded:

the origin seems to have been this <a href=”‪https://twitter.com/Gil…/status/456457846742188034/photo/1″>tweet:</a>, and the April 16 Times (London of course) is referenced. Searching on the Times site for “Vikings” in the last 7 days, I get two hits on April 16 and 17, both to light-hearted pieces (a “diary” and something called the ubercool guide to Easter), but both only have a teaser online, with the rest only accessible to subscribers. A picture of the scene is <a href=”‪http://jamesshawphotos.co.uk/blog/2014/4/16/viking-invasion”>here</a>, by the way (Viking longboat in front of Westminster Palace)

(Oh, the reason I assumed it was a joke was pretty much only this: the SPAR goes on and on and on, beyond what would be a reasonable description of Viking habits, and the effect is to increase the impact of the punchline, if indeed it is a punchline.

Also, the little snippet of the “Diary” piece that *could* have this insert in a sidebar somewhere, contains this little ditty:

As Farage breaks the coalition
and Ukip takes poll position
Nick Clegg well knows:
Anything Goes.
When Cameron keeps up his defences
for certain MPs’ expenses
the Scandal shows:
Anything goes

… so it’s about the misdeeds of the MPs again — a topic that hasn’t left the UK press for years, in particular expenses scandals that, even though the sums involved may appear relatively modest, have painted the MPs as greedy and exploitative. And intentional or not, this has been re-posted so much by Brits that I think it’s being read as extremely funny.)

I noted that I had seen enough really inept danglers that I might not be much good at detecting intentional ones.]

7 Responses to “Why is this so hard to process?”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    You mean it wasn’t intended as satire? I thought it was quite cleverly constructed when I first saw it, but if it’s unconscious, that makes it even cleverer.

  2. Martin van den Berg Says:

    Given the reputation of British MPs, they are by far the most salient referent for the preposed phrase, especially since the Vikings occur embedded in the antecedent.

  3. John Baker Says:

    I don’t think it’s particularly hard to process. The initial question is whether the writer has satirical intent. The evidence for satire seems to me to be strong: The introductory words of the second sentence initially lead the reader to believe that they refer to Vikings, but ultimately the reference is to modern MPs, to humorous effect. The argument for satire is strengthened by the use of the modifier “nonetheless,” which works well if the reference is to MPs but is strained if the reference is to Vikings, as there is nothing surprising about looking up to admire the vessel of uncivilized people.

    However, it is possible (if, to my mind, unlikely) that the writer has no satirical intent and the initial portion of the second sentence really does refer to Vikings. In that case, it is simply a poorly drafted dangling modifier with unconscious humor, which MWDEU describes as the one pitfall that must be avoided with dangling modifiers.

  4. David Kathman Says:

    Like John, I thought this was actually a cleverly constructed passage making fun of British MPs. Reading the beginning of the second sentence, one naturally assumes that it is the Vikings being referred to as “famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking”, but when “the MPs” turns out to be the subject of the main clause, one suddenly realizes that the description is being applied to the MPs, and the result is humor. I chuckled, at least. It’s the initial difficulty in processing the sentence that creates the humor.

  5. Patrick Kidd Says:

    Hi Arnold
    I’m the author of this piece and editor of the Times Diary. It was a deliberate joke using a dangling modifier to set up an expectation of one thing only for the twist to send us another way. Sorry you read it literally.

    The Diary is a lighter, hopefully humorous, column with a running theme being to mock politicians (of all parties).

    Glad this item had proved so popular (even if barely anyone acknowledged the source). Always nice to write an item that amuses.

  6. Patrick Kidd Says:

    Suppose I should also have added to previous comment that the two big clues that this was a deliberate joke were, as you note, the length of the SPAR, especially the sex and drinking bit, but in particular the use of “nonetheless”, which surely makes it clear the MPs are (in the end) to be understood as the subject of all the vices.

  7. Jeremy Wheeler Says:

    You might find Professor Pullum’s post on this kind of humour enlightening…


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