Skip to the important bit

From reader Joshua Bischof in e-mail on the 21st (boldface highlights the example sentence, call it (1); italics and underlining mark off important elements in (1)):

I just got this email from the superintendent of my kids’ school district:

This is Superintendent Bill Hall calling to wish everyone a very happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving break. I would also encourage you to go to our website at http://www.mtsd.org and watch the video regarding our District’s recently released ranking for our Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment Scores. After watching the video, I know you will be proud of your child, our teachers, and our District.

Interesting how effortlessly we retrieve you as the missing subject of the adjunct despite its position in the complement clause.

The initial phrase (italicized above) after watching the video, call it (1a), would be deprecated as a “dangling modifier” by many — but as Josh noted, it is effortlessly (and correctly) interpreted as having the addressee of (1) (and not the speaker of (1)) as the person watching the video.

(1) is a SPAR (a subjectless predicative adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject), and the default is for a SPAR to pick up this referent from the subject of the clause the SPAR is adjunct to — the I of I know above — but that Subject Rule (SR) is only a default (not God’s Law, as some are inclined to see it), and is overridden in a large assortment of cases, in all of which the notion of discourse-prominence or –topicality (at some point in a discourse) plays a central role.

To appreciate what’s going on with (1), try replacing parts of the underlined portion (the subject and main verb think of the main clause) with other material:

(2) After watching the video, I knew you would be proud of…

(3) After watching the video, my friend Kim knows you will be proud of…

In both of these, the SR applies: it’s very hard to understand either as having the addressee as the person watching the video; instead, in (2) it’s the speaker and in (3) it’s the speaker’s friend Kim. So why is (1), with main clause I know you will be proud of…, different?

The crucial observation is that sentences with

1st-person subject, a mental action-verb (think, know, believe, be sure, …) in the simple PRS as main verb, and a clause as direct object

are subtly but significantly ambiguous, between a reportive sense (reporting on the contents of the speaker’s mind: roughly, ‘what I/we think / know / … is X’) and an expressive sense (just blurting out those contents). (The distinction is not new with me, but has been recognized for decades.) In reportive sentences, the syntactic structure matches semantic and discourse organization (with X conveyed in an object clause), but in expressive sentences, X is the main content, the important bit, and subj+vb functions as an (adverbial) modifier of this, indicating the source of X in the speaker’s mind.

That is, in expressive sentences, subj+vb is functioning like a parenthetical modifier: (1) on its expressive interpretation is understood like (1′):

(1) I know you will be proud of your child…

(1′) you, I know, will be proud of your child… / you will, I know, be proud of your child… / you will be, I know, proud of your child… / you will be proud of your child…, I know

In still other words, on the expressive interpretation of (1), the addressee is discourse-prominent, foregrounded, highly topical (while the speaker is backgrounded). A SPAR wants to find an interpretation for its missing subject among highly topical entities, and in (1) interpreted expressively, that’s the addressee; ceteris paribus, the referent of a clause’s subject is highly topical (hence the SR).

Note that in this analysis (1) is ambiguous. All I’ve said above is that on the expressive interpretation of (1), the SPAR picks up you as its missing subject. But on the reportive interpretation of (1), the SPAR picks up I as its missing subject (by the SR). Both readings are possible, though the expressive reading is probably more plausible in the context.

(Note that there are severe restrictions on when an expressive interpretation is easily available. Hence, the difference between 1st-person subjects and others, as in (1) vs. (3); and between simple PRS verbs and others, as in (1) vs. (2).)

The distinction has come up at least once before in my postings on “danglers”: in a posting on 7/10/12, “Dangling in the comics”, on the example:

(4) Despite being an agnostic, I think Jesus Christ allegedly did some pretty cool stuff.

Again, I + mental-action verb as an assertion about the speaker’s thoughts or as a (parenthetical) modifier of an embedded object clause. But in this case, the intended reading was the reportive one, the one predicted by the SR; what I noted was that the expressive reading, though implausible (it has Jesus Christ being an agnostic), was also possible.

One Response to “Skip to the important bit”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From (editor) Mike Pope on Facebook:

    One of the things we’re charged with while editing is helping to reduce the possibilities of ambiguity for ESL readers and for machine translation. I have some confidence that ESL readers can understand SPARs (well, maybe not always), but now I’m curious whether these would be traps for MT. Anyway, given this charter, I’d reflexively change the opening to “After you watch …,” even tho, as you note, native speaker would have a hard time not understanding it as written.

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