after-SPARs

A SPAR message from reader Josh Bischof, with this bulletin from the internet:

From Ragan’s PR Daily “Ultimate grammar cheat sheet” by Brendan Brown on 12/6/17:  “6 grammar errors that can affect your story telling”

At issue is the interpretation of the PP = after + NP here, after a long day at school; the grammar tip presupposes that this PP is, in my terms, a SPAR, a subjectless predicative adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject — I’ll refer to this as the Referent (for the SPAR) for short —  in which case general principles predict that the missing subject is the dog, which is both the nearest NP to the SPAR (the Nearest Rule) and the subject of the main clause the SPAR is adjunct to (the Subject Rule).

But PPs with the temporal P after don’t generally count as SPARs; only certain ones do — those with an NP object denoting a time span (as above) — and then those SPARs are subject to the complexities of interpretation that attend all SPARs, according to which factors of syntax and discourse context come into play (making the Subject Rule only a default and not a hard constraint).

Adjuncts with the marker after.

Case 1: after + finite clause. For example, after the ball was over. There’s an explicit subject, so no SPAR and no issue.

Case 2: after + NP denoting a temporal location. For example, after midnight, after Tuesday, after this month. No missing subject, so no SPAR and no issue.

Case 3: after  + NP denoting an event. For example, after the lecture, after the explosion, after a celebration of independence, after a few drinks. In general, using such an NP evokes a set of participants in the event, and this participant-set often includes an agent in the event (the person who lectures, the people who celebrate, the people who drink), but such NPs don’t require reconstructing a (grammatical) subject, though understanding them in discourse might involve positing an agent in the event; for instance, in understanding After a few drinks, the music seemed rich and deep, you will posit some drinkers and will — if the discourse is to be coherent — probably posit that these drinkers are either the audience for the music or the musicians themselves, but even that isn’t guaranteed.

In any case, such adjuncts aren’t SPARs.

Case 4: after + VP in PRP form. For instance, after being held for three weeks, after celebrating independence, after spending a night in jail. These are SPARs, classic SPARs, and if the Referent isn’t supplied by the subject of the main clause they’re attached to, some usage writers would ban them all as “dangling modifiers”.

Note that it’s just a subject that’s missing, not necessarily an agentive subject: after being held for three weeks and after spending a night in jail both have non-agentive subjects.

The first of these examples was the topic of a Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum, on 10/8/09, “A dangler in The Economist“, about

(A) After being held for three weeks, it turned out that the American extradition request was based on a fraudster who had stolen Mr Bond’s identity.

It turns out that the Mr. Bond in question was introduced in the previous sentence, so he might have been seen as topical in the discourse — which, according to my analysis of these things, would have made him available as the Referent. Part of Geoff Pullum’s point is that this previous introduction didn’t seem to him to make Mr. Bond topical enough; the NP Mr Bond is so far down in the syntactic structure of the main clause with the initial SPAR that it takes a lot of processing work to appreciate that this NP supplies the Referent. Not impossible, but hard; it gives you pause.

An after + VPprp SPAR was the focus of a previous posting inspired by Josh Bischof:

(B) After watching the videoI know you will be proud of your child, our teachers, and our District.

The initial SPAR after watching the video is italicized, as is the NP you that supplies the Referent — an NP that is neither the nearest to the SPAR nor the subject of the main clause (the NP I is both of these). Despite all this, most people — at least, most people who haven’t internalized some version of the Nearest Rule or the Subject Rule from having been taught it in school or in books — find (B) unremarkable, easy to understand (correctly). They do this by essentially disregarding the underlined material in (B).

The effect here appears to be very structure-specific, depending on the 1sg subject and a verb from a small set of mental-action verbs, in its simple present form; details in my earlier posting. Generally, the acceptability of non-canonical SPARs (those not obeying the Subject Rule) depends crucially on the discourse context, in ways detailed in a number of my previous postings (available in this Page on this blog). The overarching idea is that the Referent must be highly topical in the discourse (call this Topicality Rulz) — which means, among other things, that judging isolated examples out of context is profoundly foolish.

An important note on (B). The fact that the underlined material I know in it can be ignored in the search for the Referent actually illustrates the power of Topicality Rulz. The point is that this particular syntactic structure is associated with (momentary) discourse backgrounding of the speaker (the referent of the 1sg NP I), making the addressee (the referent of the 2sg NP you) available as a prime candidate for the Referent. (Knowing is also backgrounded.)

Case 5: after + TimeSpan NP with predicative complement. A PP of the form after + TimeSpan, like after three hours or after a long day is just an ordinary temporal adverbial. Unlike in case 3, there’s no event referred to, no implicit participants, and certainly no missing subject. So not even close to a SPAR.

But TimeSpan objects with predicative complements are something else again. Take the example from the Ultimate Grammar Cheat Sheet that started this posting:

(C) After a long day at school, the dog welcomed Jeana with slobbery kisses.

The adjunct after a long day, with unadorned a long day as object, would be unproblematic, but the complement PP at school is a predicative missing a subject, so we’re now in SPAR territory.

The TimeSpan NP a long day at school is syntactically the object of after, but its head NP a long day is discourse-backgrounded (in discourse structure serving merely to modify the proposition that someone was at school). The result is that after a long day at school conveys roughly ‘after spending a long day at school’ or ‘after being at school for a long day’. In any case, it’s a SPAR, of a type that’s sufficiently common for me to have created a code for it in my collection of danglers:

AFTER: “after TimeSpan” examples (with understood spending or the like)

Two canonical SPARs of the AFTER type, requiring no referent search:

Channel 9 sport reporter Sam Squiers has finally returned home after 44 days in hospital with her five-week premature baby girl. (link) [the Referent is Sam Squiers, denoted by the main clause subject Channel 9 sport reporter Sam Squiers]

After 5 weeks in Robot Hell, I’m going to need a drink… (link) [the Referent is the speaker, denoted by the main clause subject I]

And then 6 AFTER-type danglers from my files:

Z3.7. AFTER [Aaron Kipnis, Angry Young Men (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), p. 130. Kipnis is describing his bad-boy time on the streets, in jails, etc. Here, it’s the Visalia County (CA) Jail]   After more than a month in jail, my mother posted bond, bless her soul. The first round of trials… [the Referent is the speaker, in this autobiographical, some would say self-obsessed, narrative; this one gave me pause, briefly]

Z3.29. AFTER [from GKP: Nina Totenberg, NPR Morning Edition, 4/30/03, in a story about a man who was only able to prove he was American (he was a Dutch immigrant who had become a US citizen while in the military) after spending five months under detention as a presumed non-citizen immigrant accused of a crime (hence ineligible for bail under standard policies, which in this case the judge overruled).] After five months in detention, a judge released him on bail. [the Referent is the Dutch-American man, who was what the news story was about; the judge appears on-stage only very briefly]

Z3.333. AFTER After 15 years with the Giants, the team doesn’t want Barry Bonds back. (from a summary of the day’s news on NPR’s Morning Edition, 9/27/07) [the Referent is Barry Bonds, who was the topic of this part of the news report]

Z3.345. Dangling modifiers vex (“At home at peace in Lamb House in mid-July, after almost a year abroad, two or three years of steady work lay ahead”). (David Leavitt, “A Beast in the Jungle”, review of Sheldon M. Novick, Henry James: The Mature Master, NYT Book Review, 12/23/07, p. 9) [the Referent is Henry James, the discourse topic in this portion of the book, indeed the topic of the whole damn book; Leavitt’s cavil at the AFTER adjunct just sounds pissy]

Z4.18. AFTER-F-EMB-3P @CNNLive A jury has overturned the Amanda Knox murder conviction after almost four years in an Italian prison. (from John McIntyre on Facebook 10/3/11) [thanks to the power of the Subject Rule for clause-final modifiers, this one is very hard indeed to process]

Z4.24. AFTER-I-CON-3P But it is King Abdullah who runs the country. After 12 years on the throne, three things have changed, as the Arab awakening has affected Jordan. (“Caught in the middle as usual”, Economist 10/22/11 p. 58) [the Referent, King Abdullah, is introduced in previous context as the topic of this part of the discourse; the NP that is both nearest to the SPAR and subject of the main clause, is the pragmatically inconsequential three things]

As for (C), it’s hard to tell. We have no context (usage advice almost never takes context into account). But… ceteris paribus, human beings — especially humans referred to by proper names — are much more likely than dogs to be topical in discourse, so even without context, I didn’t have a problem with (C), and Josh Bischof didn’t either.

[The Ultimate Grammar Cheat Sheet’s  “6 grammar errors that can affect your story telling”: dangling modifiers; comma splice; sentence fragments; misusing the apostrophe with “its”; vague pronoun references’; unnecessary comma. The advice itself ranges from complete bullshit to merely misleading.]

Case 6: after + TimeSpan NP with of + VPprp complement. This one I came across while searching for more examples of case 5; in a sense, it’s a composite of cases 4 and 5. As in case 5, the TimeSpan element is discourse-backgrounded, and as in case 4, there’s a VPprp with missing subject.

A few attested canonical examples, with the Referent found via the Subject Rule:

After weeks of feeling tired all day long I finally have more energy now… (‘after feeling tired all day long for weeks’) [speaker is the Referent]

After months of working hard and saving up, I am now able to afford this t-shirt… (‘after working hard and saving up for moths’) [speaker is the Referent]

Drake Ghosts Bella Hadid After Months Of Pursuing Her (‘after pursuing her for months’) [(the rapper) Drake is the Referent]

(There are also examples with plain VPprp complements to the TimeSpan element — after months working hard and saving up — but the of-marked examples seem to be much more common.)

Plus one non-canonical example, with lots of lead-in context and the SPAR boldfaced:

Over the last several years, after my annual check-ups and blood work, I have been told, “your vitamin B and D levels are low.” And of course was told to up my intake of both vitamins. Which I did yet it didn’t seem to raise my levels. I am now 57 and a Grandma, so when I developed a sore, stiff neck, I attributed it to old age. After months of complaining [‘after complaining for months’], my husband (an Orthopedic Surgeon) said, “you either go find out what is going on or stop complaining” (link) [the Referent is the speaker, who is totally the discourse topic; without the preceding context, the sentence that begins with the SPAR would be hard to interpret correctly, but with this context, I have no problem with it]

The customary caution: people differ in how well they cope with, and how they judge the acceptability of, such non-canonical AFTER-type SPARs, even in context.

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