Our reclusive pangolinists

On the dangler watch, a report by Ben Zimmer on 4/29 about this Reddit posting, which seems to have appeared without any preceding context:

TIL [Today I Learned] Due to their reclusive nature, scientists are unsure how long a pangolin lives in the wild.

(now entry Z4.87, coded SUB(due to)-I-EMB-3P, in my collection of examples)

The writer of Z4.87 was no doubt intending to write about the endangered animal the scaly anteater, or pangolin, and the creatures were paramount in their consciousness; and they also wanted to introduce an observation on scientists’ knowledge about pangolins. All of that is fine. But we can’t be mind-readers, and what they wrote fell afoul of a general strategy in sentence comprehension that leads even well-intentioned readers to understand, at least for a perceptible moment, the claim to be that scientists, not pangolins, are reclusive.

This is what Geoff Pullum once characterized nicely as inconsiderate behavior. Avoiding the impression of reclusive pangolinists involves setting aside what you’re thinking and assuming and then, considerately, taking on the viewpoint of other people (who don’t necessarily share these) — to see things as others are likely to see them. This is a genuinely difficult task, and it’s a messy one, because it involves assessing fuzzy likelihoods. It can’t be done perfectly; but we should try to do our best.

Guffaws. Also reported by Ben. From a commenter on Tumblr:

maybe they [the scientists] should leave their laboratories and go find one in the wild then

And in a tweet, Gretchen McCulloch was delighted with the referential ambiguity. In a reply to Gretchen, Evan Kirshenbaum then picked up on another feature of Z4.87:

And it seems to lobby for the wrong reading by having ‘pangolin’ in the singular.

Evan is referring to the three crucial referential NPs in Z2.87, which are boldfaced and assigned numbers below:

due to their [1] reclusive nature, scientists [2] are unsure how long a pangolin [3] …

[1] is a 3pl definite pronominal determiner NP, and the question is which of the following NPs it is cataphoric to: [2] the 3pl indefinite scientists or [3] the 3sg indefinite a pangolin. The fact is that generic indefinites differing in number often can stand in for one another (the facts are complicated), so [3] isn’t entirely out of the question, but in general, a pl is an easier match for the pl cataphor their than a sg would be.

But [2] is not only closer to [1] than [3] is, it’s also the subject of the main clause, and that’s truly crucial to the way Z2.87 would be understood by default. It massively favors the reclusve-pangolinists reading over the reclusive-pangolins reading

Digression. A note on pangolins, which I’m fond of — because they’re unaggressive creatures that protect themselves from predators by their thick scales; because they’re now seriously endangered; and because I have a soft spot for anteaters in general, the anteater in Johnny Hart’s BC comic strip having given me the college nickname Zot (Z is for Zot, and Zot! goes its tongue).

Previous pangolin postings on this blog:

on 3/31/15, in “Two, nocturnal and dactylic”, on the morning names pangolin and kinkajou, with this image:


on 4/1/15, in “Pangolins part 2”

on 2/14/17, in “VDay pangolins”

The BC anteater in action:

(#2) The BC strip for 6/5/08, by Mason Mastroianni, who succeeded Hart as the strip’s artist

And the evolution of the anteater into UC Irvine’s mascot Peter the Anteater:


Mais revenons à nos moutons. Background on danglers, from among the many postings on the subject on Language Log and this blog, catalogued on this Page:

on 6/2/12, in “as a SPAR”, about:

a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject) that’s non-canonical, in that the adjunct doesn’t obey the Subject Rule (doesn’t pick up its referent from the subject of the main clause); such non-canonical SPARs, or X-SPARS, are popularly known as “dangling modifiers”, a condemnatory label. But some types of X-SPARs are in fact acceptable (except to those who have internalized the teaching that X-SPARs are necessarily ungrammatical)

on 3/18/15, in “The speaker is (almost) always topical”:

one observation I have made again and again in my postings on danglers is that when the referent of the missing subject is highly topical at this point in the discourse, many examples that seem unacceptable in isolation are improved enormously when they are seen in their linguistic context.

Back to Z4.87, which seems to have appeared on Reddit without any preceding context:

TIL [Today I Learned] Due to their reclusive nature, scientists are unsure how long a pangolin lives in the wild.

No context, you have to fall back on the default Subject Rule, and that gives you reclusive pangolinists, solidly.

But suppose Z4.87 is in a news report headed something like “New Evidence About the Endangered Pangolin”; then the pangolins would be discourse-topical and the scientists would be backgrounded, and, whizzo, Z4.87 gets a whole lot better (even with the difference in grammatical number between their and a pangolin).

It’s the miracle of context.

One Response to “Our reclusive pangolinists”

  1. Jeffrey Goldberg Says:

    I could see myself being deliberately inconsiderate as a joke. I enjoyed reading that sentence, and I could see myself writing it.

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