The power of the Subject Rule

Over on ADS-L yesterday, Wilson Gray reported the following example from his reading:

(X) A nine-year-old boy is being hailed a hero for saving his mother’s life after being struck by lightning.

Merriment ensued on the mailing list over the boy’s impressve act, his toughness, and the like — all these responses indicating that readers interpreted (X) as asserting that the boy performed his heroic act after he had been struck by lightning.

The phrase after being struck by lightning is a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), and virtually everyone reading the phrase in the context above will take the required referent to be the referent of the subject in the main clause (a nine-year-old boy), rather than the referent of an NP closer to the SPAR: his mother’s life, an unlikely candidate, since that referent isn’t even a concrete object that could be struck by lightning; or, better, his mother, surely the NP the writer of (X) had in mind as supplying the required referent.

If the writer had absorbed the lessons of their school grammar, they would in fact have expected that the boy’s mother would be supplied as the required referent — because that school grammar tells you, very firmly, that a SPAR will (indeed must) pick up its referent from the NP nearest to it (the Nearest Rule). (That’s not the way school grammars, and books of usage advice, talk about these things — they speak of nouns and dangling modifiers — but here I’ve cleaned up the deep conceptual confusions in the traditional way of talking about these things.) Unfortunately, the empirically more adequate general principle isn’t a Nearest Rule, but a Subject Rule (and even that’s just a default, not an inviolable law of grammar).

Note. As is so often the case with off-the-cuff citations on ADS-L, Wilson doesn’t provide a checkable source for (X), and I haven’t been able to find one. There are a surprising number of newsaper stories about young boys heroically saving the lives of their mothers or of babies, but none that I could find has a sentence with the crucial features of (X). Nevertheless, (X) is plausible: people do write such things, often earnestly in the belief that they are following the “rules of grammar” as they understand them, and every so often I post about such examples, because they’re, well, funny.

From a 3/2/11 posting on this blog:

A word on the Subject Rule versus the Nearest Rule that’s found throughout so much of the advice literature. When the SPAR is sentence-initial, the two proposals make essentially the same predictions (though there can be serious puzzles in figuring out what counts as the nearest NP). But when the SPAR is sentence-final, the two proposals usually make different predictions, and the evidence is in favor of the Subject Rule: sentence-final SPARs strongly prefer to pick up the missing referent from the subject of the main clause, no matter what other NPs intervene.

… 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

I provided there this treasure from my files (hat tip to Michael Quinion):

Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons

Yes, yes, the writer wanted to tell us that the stage was festooned with stuff, and they put the festooned phrase right after the NP the stage — but no dice, buddy, the Subject Rule rulz.

One Response to “The power of the Subject Rule”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Larry Horn on Facebook:

    I couldn’t find it either, but I did locate a couple of equally amazing rescues:
    Slippers save man’s life after being struck by lightning
    Texas teen says boot saved her life after being struck by lightning.
    Nine-year-old boy, shmine-year-old boy: All hail the heroic footwear!

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