Book notice: Visual Language of Comics

Arrived yesterday, Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images (Bloomsbury, 2013). Central thesis:

drawings and sequential images are structured in a similar way to language … comics are written in a visual language of sequential images that combines with text.

(Blurbs from linguists Ray Jackendoff and Dan Slobin.)

I haven’t read the book yet (though I find the thesis congenial), but the very first sentence (in the Introduction, p. xv) is of linguistic interest.

The sentence:

(1) While growing up, reading and drawing comics were a particularly enveloping set of obsessions, and I had every intention of becoming a comic artist.

(1) has a main clause, a coordination of two clauses — reading and drawing comics were … obsessions, and I had… of becoming a comic artist —  with an accompanying subordinate clause serving as a sentential adverb, in fact a subjectless predicational adjunct requiring a referent for its missing subject (a SPAR, to use the terminology I adopted here some years ago, to avoid the drastic inadequacies of the traditional treatments of such phenomena). The SPAR is while growing up, an adjunct that frames the main clause as presenting the experience of the writer; were … obsessions in the first conjunct of the main clause can be seen as elliptical for were … obsessions for me (a report of the writer’s experience), and the second conjunct (I had every intention …), with 1sg subject, is explicitly from the writer’s viewpoint. Such experiential SPARs are quite common, and they usually occasion no notice.

But if you’re a certain sort of person, you’ll notice the fact that the SPAR in (1) doesn’t pick up its missing subject from the subject of the main clause that follows — the default is for a SPAR to obey the “Subject Rule” for finding its missing subject — which makes it what you think of as a “dangling modifier” and therefore makes (1) ungrammatical in your opinion. Now: if you’re uncomfortable with experiential SPARs, you’re welcome to avoid them, but that doesn’t give you license to declare them all to be non-standard, unacceptable for English speakers in general; the facts about the practice of experienced, serious writers and speakers say otherwise.

I go into this digression because I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before some reviewer of Cohn’s book wields “dangling modifiers” as a weapon and dismisses the book out of hand because its very first sentence is said to be appallingly bad English. (How can you accept what Cohn says about comics when he can’t even write English?, you’ll say. And you’ll note that Cohn claims to be writing authoritatively about linguistics.) Sigh.

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