Another acceptable dangler

In yesterday’s NYT, in a letter to the editor from NPR talk show host Diane Rehm:

In a March 23 letter about the desire of my husband, John Rehm, to end his life after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the writer described Parkinson’s as a chronic and progressive but not terminal condition. In fact, after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, brought on by John’s loss of muscular ability to swallow correctly, his doctor determined that John had six months or less to live and prescribed hospice care.

Pulling out the main part of the last sentence gives us:

(1) after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, …  his doctor determined that John had six months or less to live and prescribed hospice care.

This has a subjectless predicational adjunct, after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, that does not pick up a referent for that missing subject from the subject of the main clause, his doctor — so it’s a classic dangling modifier (a non-default SPAR, in my terminology). Well, the determiner in the subject, the possessive his, does supply the required referent, even though the whole subject does not. This is a pattern I’ve posted on before, and other factors work together to make a modifier that should be acceptable to almost everyone.

The possessive. From 10/20/12, “Possessive controller for SPAR”, on the example

Z4.72. Like many Iowa farmers, [Gary] Plunkett’s corn harvest numbers have gyrated …

The relevant structural property here is a main-clause subject with a possessive NP determiner, in this case Plunkett’s (in Plunkett’s corn harvest numbers), where the determiner supplies the controller for the SPAR; Plunkett is like many Iowa farmers in that Plunkett’s corn harvest numbers have gyrated.

… I have a considerable number of examples with possessive NPs supplying controllers, and no doubt could easily collect more. The SPARs in them range over a number of structural types … — and they are generally acceptable, the main exception being in cases where both the possessive NP and the subject NP it’s a constituent of are plausible candidates to supply the controller of the SPAR

Here’s one with a pronominal possessive, just as in the Rehm example:

Z4.26. After raising three children and consulting with thousands of mothers of infants, my suggestion to parents of such children is simple …  (Elizabeth Hatherell, Neufeld Institute, Winnepeg, answer to query in New Scientist “The Last Word”, 11/26/11, p. 65)

Context and topicality. As the Rehm example is presented in (1), there is some possibility that the doctor, rather than John Rehm, is the one who suffered the bouts of pneumonia. But seen in context, the example scarcely allows that interpretation. In full context:

(2) In a March 23 letter about the desire of my husband, John Rehm, to end his life after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the writer described Parkinson’s as a chronic and progressive but not terminal condition. In fact, after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, brought on by John’s loss of muscular ability to swallow correctly, his doctor determined that John had six months or less to live and prescribed hospice care.

The letter is about John Rehm; Rehm is the topic of the discourse, and he’s referred to throughout the context: in the sentence preceding (1), in the appositive modifier excised from (1) (in John’s loss …), and in later material in (1) (John had six months ...), as well as in the possessive determiner. John Rehm is all over the place, and the doctor is merely an ancillary actor.

As I’ve posted many times here, discourse topics are very strong candidates for controllers for SPARs; in the case of (1), the effect strikes me as overwhelming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: