Ripped from the headlines

Well, actually, the headline — from CNN Politics, “Gaetz showed nude photos of women he said he’d slept with to lawmakers, sources tell CNN” by Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Ryan Nobles yesterday — isn’t problematic, but very early in the body of the story, we get this:

(hat tips to Mike Pope and Michael Covarrubias on Facebook)

Which is.

I was (actually) shocked at the idea that congressman Matt Gaetz (R of FL) — admittedly, an extraordinarily arrogant bully with the contempt for ordinary people and customary social conventions so often displayed by children of privilege — would have sex with women on the floor of the US House of Representatives. Then I saw the ambiguity in modifier attachment and realized that what was alleged was merely deeply boorish behavior: passing around, wink wink nod nod, naked photos and videos of his sexual conquests to other legislators and their staffs.

Now, about that modifier attachment…

Consider the PP including while on the House floor: the question is what event is described as having taken place on the House floor: Gaetz’s sleeping with nude women, or Gaetz’s showing off photos and videos; this difference in the interpretation of the underlined PP on the house floor — call it PPplace — follows from the difference in where the larger PP — call it PPtime — is syntactically attached: low, as a modifier of slept with; or high, as a modifier of show off … slept with.

Then, PPtime locates the event E (either sleeping with or showing off to) as happening in a set of times among which are the times while Gaetz was on the House floor, from which it follows that E is located as happening in a set of places among which are whose happening on the House floor.

The intermediate steps in that demonstration have to do with the interpretation of the PP of location in time, PPtime,

including while PPplace,

PPplace being the PP of location in place

on the House floor.

Step 1 here is the interpretation of the SPAR (subjectless predicational adjunct requiring a referent for the subject) while on the House floor. The default is for a SPAR to pick up that referent from  the subject of the clause containing that adjunct (non-default SPARs are traditionally called “dangling modifiers”): the subject Gaetz. So the interpretation is as the clause while Gaetz was on the House floor (also supplying the context-appropriate form of BE for the predicational adjunct).

Step 2 is the interpretation of including while Gaetz was on the House floor (and so of PPtime in the actual quotation). Here we have the preposition including (derived historically from the verb form and maintaining some of its semantics, but functioning differently in its syntax). From NOAD:

prep. including: containing as part of the whole being considered: languages including Welsh, Cornish, and Breton | weapons were recovered from the house, including a shotgun.

Further, we have to recall that though the usual objects of Ps are NPs (as in NOAD‘s examples here), they can also in some circumstances be PPs (from under the bed, since during the summer) or adverbial subordinate clauses ((the period) from before I discovered linguistics to while I was in college). And that’s what we see in including while Gaetz was on the House floor.

And now we have all the steps in showing how a difference in the interpretation of the PP on the House floor follows from a difference in where the larger PP including while on the House floor is syntactically attached — LA (low attachment) modifying slept with or HA (high attachment) modifying show off … slept with.

(There are Pages on this blog on attachment postings and on dangler postings.)

A note. The story I just told unpacks how readers interpret the CNN passage to get two possible understandings for what Gaetz did on the House floor. Native speakers do this with incredible speed and entirely unconsciously, and what they do is, in this case, almost surely nothing anyone ever taught them explicitly: I would guess that almost everything I wrote in the previous section involved concepts and assumptions that are nothing like what anyone was taught in school about English grammar, and that nothing that people were taught about grammar in school is of any use whatsoever in comprehending how the Gaetz passage comes to have the meanings it does.

It’s a classic case of stuff we know (implicitly) without knowing (explicitly) what it is that we know, or indeed having any useful way of talking about the matter at all. All that analysis and explanation is what scientists are for — in this case, linguists and psychologists and cognitive scientists, and often anthropologists and sociologists too. And we obviously have plenty of work to do.


2 Responses to “Ripped from the headlines”

  1. Rod Williams Says:

    Fastest ever journey from “OHMIGOD!!!” to eyes-glazed-over. Ain’t linguistics grand?!

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    I keep picturing another parsing, attachment to the nearest subject and verb: The sources told CNN the story, even on the House floor! Those sources “have the floor” so they speak authoritatively, as if holding the conch. Instead of a parenthetical interruption set off by commas before and after, CNN’s sources could a postpended modifier, and their location on the floor could also be postpended.

    I’m think “showed off to other lawmakers” isn’t quite right. Showing off implies boastfulness (certainly plausible in the scenario), but showing photos and videos seems more impartial, with less preposition pile-up. The reader can decide if it counts as showing off.

    The headline also has the phrases in a less convoluted order, so it seems more natural and easier to parse. There are so many verbs to juggle (showed off, said, slept with, told). The “including while” seems infelicitous, but “on the House floor” without “while” could be images of women nude on the House floor, or it could modify “allegedly” (so, again, where CNN’s sources made their allegations).

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