Dangler time

It’s been a while since I posted about “dangling modifiers”, so here’s a nice example from the Economist last month (December 13th), in a story “Charting the plastic waters”. On p. 81:

The Five Gyres Institute, for example, is campaigning to phase out the use of plastic microbeads in facial scrubs and other consumer products in favour of natural alternatives made from such materials as apricot husks. Sewage treatment plants do not capture all the beads which wash down the drain, so some inevitably end up in the sea. And being so small, no one really knows where they are going.

The crucial bit is boldfaced.

As I wrote on 1/22/14, repeating a reframing of the notion of “dangling modifier” that is respectable on scholarly grounds:

The topic is SPARs — Subjectless Predicative Adjuncts Requiring a referent for the missing subject — and the default principle for finding this referent, which expects that it’s provided by the subject  of the clause the adjunct modifies. But there’s a collection of cases in which the Subject Rule is disregardable; it’s a rule of thumb, not a rule of nature.

The example under discussion there was:

[1] Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and undergoing months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the pub grew in popularity under Mrs Muldoon.

The Subject Rule would say that the referent for the missing subject of the SPAR is the pub (which is preposterous in the real world), while the intended referent is Mrs. Muldoon. But then I pointed out that

The material, which goes on for some paragraphs, is all about Mrs. Muldoon. And that makes all the difference in the world. Mrs. Muldoon is the discourse topic, and this topicality makes her easily available as the referent of the missing subject in the SPAR in [1]. Discourse topicality is crucial.

And in the Economist example, the topic of the passage is plastic microbeads, and they are featured prominently in both of the sentences immediately preceding the sentence with the SPAR. So topicality strongly favors the microbeads as the referent of the missing subject. In addition, the subject of the main clause is the non-referential NP no one, which cannot possibly supply this referent — but the subject of the next clause, the embedded where they are going, is they, which is perfect as the source of the referent. So if you’re reading for comprehension, you’ll assume that it’s the beads that are small, and you’ll probably do this without any reflection.

(As I almost always add in these discussions, if you have managed to internalize the Subject Rule (or a near-equivalent principle) as an inviolable scheme for interpreting sentences — probably by having been taught it as an explicit rule — then you’ve been ruined for reading for comprehension in a natural way, and nothing I say can help you.)

In any case, the Economist was happy to publish a SPAR with non-default interpretation.

As a bonus, notice all the beads which wash down the drain, with the restrictive relativizer which, rather than the that that (or which) American style manuals insist on as the only acceptable choice. But the Economist is a British publication and doesn’t subscribe to this absurd dogma.

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