giving a speech on drugs

Today’s Bizarro/Wayno collaboration takes us into the world of modifier attachment:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

Background: there’s a Page on this blog on modifier attachment (Low Attachment (LA) vs. High Attachment (HA), in particular), in VPs and NPs, where I note

there is a gigantic psycholinguistics literature on attachment. This is just a listing of some postings on Language Log and AZBlog on the subject.

In this case, news anchor 1 says the president gave a speech on drugs, which hearers will almost surely take to have LA: a speech on drugs ‘a speech about drugs’, with on drugs as a modifier within the NP a speech on drugs. Other things being equal, LA is the default attachment.

But news anchor 2’s comment indicates that the story is actually about the president’s giving a speech while on drugs (that is, while he was on drugs), with on drugs as a modifier within a V-headed constituent, the VP or the whole clause. That’s HA.

And on the HA understanding, on drugs is a SPAR (a subjectless predicative adjunct requiring a referent for the missing subject), a SPAR that picks up its referent according to the default Subject Rule — from the subject of the clause (the president). In other words, it’s a non-dangling modifier. (See the Page on this blog on dangling modifiers.)

6 Responses to “giving a speech on drugs”

  1. John Baker Says:

    My initial take was different: That the president gave a speech about drug, probably in opposition to substance abuse, and then, to relax, he engaged in abusive alcohol consumption. The cartoon then would not have any special language play, but simply would reflect societal hypocrisy in decrying drug abuse while remaining silent on alcohol abuse, even though the social costs of alcohol abuse exceed those of all other drugs. (At least, that was true; I’m not sure if it’s still true during the opioid crisis.)

    Our current president claims not to use drugs or drink alcohol other than for communion, although there are pictures that appear to show him drinking or holding an alcoholic beverage.

  2. John Baker Says:

    To be clear, I think both readings on the cartoon are plausible. Presumably the cartoonist only meant one of them, but I don’t know which one.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Wayno:

    I based this on an actual quote from a newscaster on NPR, who said “This morning, the president gave a speech on drugs,” meaning on the subject of drugs. The ambiguous wording, which could easily have been avoided, made me laugh. So, I added the second line about martinis.

    I can see how a reader might interpret it as a comment on hypocrisy, but that wasn’t the intention, and also isn’t all that funny. If that were the point of the joke, the first line might have been something like “The President gave a speech denouncing recreational use of marijuana.” But again, that simple play of behavior contrasting with a stated position is, I think, a weaker joke (valid though the argument might be).

    On Twitter, I posted that “This cartoon is about grammar & clarity, not politics.”>/blockquote>

    • John Baker Says:

      Good job picking up on the intended meaning, Arnold. I would have completely missed it, but for you.

      The joke’s set-up was perfect, but it needed a punch line that was not susceptible to this kind of ambiguity. I’m having trouble thinking of one that’s funny, though.

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