Return to Dangle City

It’s been a long time since my last “dangling modifier” — non-default SPAR — posting (on 3/15 in “giving a speech on drugs”, according to my records). Now, from Josh Bischof on the 23rd, this excerpt (now item Z4.86 in my files) from Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018):

He passes Wen’s grasshopper jar; sunlight flares off the glass and aluminum lid (screwed on tightly) as though saying see me, see me. Lying on its side and sunk into the taller grass, the earth is already absorbing it, consuming the evidence of its existence. (p. 175)

The subjectless adjunct in the boldfaced material has both a PRP VP (lying on its side) and a PSP VP (sunk into the taller grass) in it, and picks up (the referent of) its missing subject, not from the subject of the main clause (by the Subject Rule, as in a default SPAR), but, apparently, from the direct object in that clause. Nevertheless, unless you cleave unswervingly to the Subject Rule, you shouldn’t find the boldfaced sentence problematic, and there’s a reason for that.

Now, if you were given only the boldfaced stuff, without the preceding context, you’d almost surely balk; certainly, I would be brought up short. Without that context, the Subject Rule kicks in; then you realize that the missing subject can’t possibly be the earth, that doesn’t make any sense, so you have to cast about for something that would work, and the closest thing available in the boldfaced stuff is it, referring to the grasshopper jar. Whew!

On the other hand, when you’re given the whole excerpt, the context guides your understanding of the boldfaced bit: the excerpt is about the grasshopper jar — the jar is highly topical in the discourse, and so it’s highly salient in your mental processing —  and that allows you to entertain the possibility that the referent of the missing subject in the initial modifier is in fact the jar — even before you get to the main clause in the boldfaced bit. It’s a breeze.

If your schooling or reading has caused you to internalize the Subject Rule as a rigid interpretive principle (rather than a default), then you’re screwed and I can’t help you. Though at some point you should realize that other people aren’t processing things quite the way you are, and you should stop calling them stupid and illogical.

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