Attaching an 8-page essay at Wheaton College

Reported back on the 19th, a stunner of a 2017 headline about Wheaton College (IL) events dating back to 2016. First, the story from a source other than the one that produced the remarkable headline: from the Daily Mail (UK) by Jennifer Smith on 2/14/18: “Christian college ‘punished’ football players who ‘kidnapped, beat and sexually assaulted’ freshman in brutal hazing ritual by asking them to write an eight-page essay and complete community service”:

The hazing incident happened in March 2016 at Wheaton College in Illinois

Seniors James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Samuel TeBos and Noah Spielman were involved

They allegedly kidnapped a freshman, tormented him in a car when he had a pillowcase over his head and tried to sexually assault him

They then dumped him half-naked in a baseball field on the other side of campus

The boy reported it to police and school officials and then transferred colleges

Wheaton punished the seniors with an essay and 50 hours of community service

Seven months later, when the students were later charged by police, they suspended them

But then, on the DeadState site on 9/19/17, a story by Sky Palma about the Wheaton events that was given the headline, call it ℋ:

Christian college punished football players who raped and beat a student with an 8-page essay

ℋ  ends with a modifying PP, call it ℳ, with an 8-page essay. The question is: what does ℳ modify? That is, which preceding phrase does ℳ attach to as a postmodifier? There are, in fact, four possibilities:

parsing 1: ℳ modifies the nominal a student; conveying ‘a student who had an 8-page essay’

parsing 2: ℳ modifies the VP with head V beat (beat a student); conveying ‘used an 8-page essay to beat a student’

parsing 3: ℳ modifies the VP with (coordinate) head V raped and beat (raped and beat a student); conveying ‘used an 8-page essay to rape and beat a student’

parsing 4: ℳ modifies VP with head V punished (punished football players who raped and beat a student); conveying ‘used an 8-page essay to punish football players who raped and beat a student’

So ℋ  is in principle (at least) 4-ways ambiguous. The default for modifier attachment is LA (low attachment) — parsing 1, in this case — but many factors outweigh the default. In the case of ℋ, the student’s having or not having an essay would have no discernible relevance to raping / beating or punishing, so I would expect almost no one to entertain this reading. (But there are people who are hypersensitive to matters of linguistic form, over semantic and pragmatic considerations like estimates of writer’s or speaker’s intent, real-world plausibility, and relevance.)

The intended reading is parsing 4, the highest of high attachments (HA). HA frequently results from strategies in language production: the writer begins producing some constituent for which they have some modifier in mind, but they are reluctant to break up the current constituent, and in any case the modifier supplies new, or newly important, content in the discourse (or in the reader’s experience) and so should preferably come last, after other material.

So it is in ℋ. The raping and beating of a college student by football players is treated as background material, as information familiar to the reader — or, more precisely, as if it is information familiar to the reader. What’s now prominent is that the football players’ punishment was (merely) an 8-page essay.

So we get ℋ instead of

Christian college punished, with an 8-page essay, football players who raped and beat a student with an 8-page essay

and instead of other variants with ℳ up in front of the highest VP:

Christian college, with an 8-page essay, punished football players who raped and beat a student

With an 8-page essay, Christian college punished football players who raped and beat a student

What remains in interpreting ℋ, beyond the unlikely LA and the intended highest of HA, are intermediate HAs conveying that football players used an 8-page essay to viciously mistreat a student. If you entertain either of these intermediate HAs, then you’ll find ℋ absurd and risible, at least for a moment. I’m not convinced that most ordinary readers would do this. On the other hand, the distance between the highest V in ℋ, punished, and ℳ  is considerable, so it’s not inconceivable that some readers might momentarily choose an intermediate VP as the modified one, however preposterous the interpretation that results.

My assumption is that only hypersensitive readers will do this in any numbers. This is a testable hypothesis — testable through carefully constructed experiments on reading times for ℋ and similar examples: on the hypothesis, such examples will have somewhat longer reading times, because readers will be momentarily sidetracked by the preposterous interpretation. But constructing the experiments properly is something of a nightmare, and then you need a lab to run them in, and … (Note: introspection is not the way to go here.)

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