Archive for the ‘Danglers’ Category

The power of the Subject Rule

March 4, 2017

Over on ADS-L yesterday, Wilson Gray reported the following example from his reading:

(X) A nine-year-old boy is being hailed a hero for saving his mother’s life after being struck by lightning.

Merriment ensued on the mailing list over the boy’s impressve act, his toughness, and the like — all these responses indicating that readers interpreted (X) as asserting that the boy performed his heroic act after he had been struck by lightning.

The phrase after being struck by lightning is a SPAR (a Subjectless Predicative Adjunct Requiring a referent for the missing subject), and virtually everyone reading the phrase in the context above will take the required referent to be the referent of the subject in the main clause (a nine-year-old boy), rather than the referent of an NP closer to the SPAR: his mother’s life, an unlikely candidate, since that referent isn’t even a concrete object that could be struck by lightning; or, better, his mother, surely the NP the writer of (X) had in mind as supplying the required referent.

If the writer had absorbed the lessons of their school grammar, they would in fact have expected that the boy’s mother would be supplied as the required referent — because that school grammar tells you, very firmly, that a SPAR will (indeed must) pick up its referent from the NP nearest to it (the Nearest Rule). (That’s not the way school grammars, and books of usage advice, talk about these things — they speak of nouns and dangling modifiers — but here I’ve cleaned up the deep conceptual confusions in the traditional way of talking about these things.) Unfortunately, the empirically more adequate general principle isn’t a Nearest Rule, but a Subject Rule (and even that’s just a default, not an inviolable law of grammar).


Book notice: Visual Language of Comics

June 11, 2014

Arrived yesterday, Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images (Bloomsbury, 2013). Central thesis:

drawings and sequential images are structured in a similar way to language … comics are written in a visual language of sequential images that combines with text.

(Blurbs from linguists Ray Jackendoff and Dan Slobin.)

I haven’t read the book yet (though I find the thesis congenial), but the very first sentence (in the Introduction, p. xv) is of linguistic interest.


Why is this so hard to process?

April 21, 2014

From Chris Waigl, passed on by Chris Hansen:


The problem begins with the subject, a longboat full of Vikings. The (syntactic) head of this phrase is certainly longboat (and that’s what determines agreement on the verb), but it’s functioning here semantically / pragmatically as as an expression of measure, much like a collective noun. So the question is whether the subject is “about” a longboat or “about” Vikings. (Animate beings, especially humans, are especially favored as topics, ceteris paribus, so we should probably look to the Vikings.)

At the same time, the first sentence introduces the British Museum and the Palace of Westminster, implicitly (but quite subtly) introducing the Members of Parliament as entities in the discourse, though probably not as the topic.

Then we get the second sentence, which is clearly about Vikings (uncivilized, destructive, and rapacious), not boats (or the Members of Partliament, for that matter).


On the dangler watch

January 22, 2014

A regular theme on this blog looks at “dangling modifiers” that on no reasonable grounds should some of them be treated as ungrammatical. Here are two cases, of different types.


The apostrophe and a non-dangler

September 25, 2013

Katy Steinmetz on the TIME blog yesterday, in “Say It Aint So: The Movement to Kill the Apostrophe: On National Punctuation Day, here’s a look at efforts to obliterate the apostrophe and unleash a Wild West of unmarked possession”:

Today is the 10th annual National Punctuation Day, a high holiday on nerd calendars across these great United States. Its stated purpose is to be a celebration of underappreciated, misused marks like the semicolon and “the ever mysterious ellipsis.” But a better-known piece of punctuation has been getting some apocalyptic press and deserves attention on this day of celebration: the apostrophe.


Another split antecedent dangler

March 13, 2013

Back in January I looked at a racy dangler in final position in its clause, where the referent for the missing subject was picked up from a combination of the subject of the clause and an oblique object in the clause; the antecedent was split between two different elements in the clause. Now this morning in a KQED Perspectives column by Steven Moss (“Transformation”), another split-antecedent dangler, less racy and now in clause-initial position.


A split-antecedent dangler

January 6, 2013

In ad copy for the Michael Lucas raunchy gay porn film The Wetter the Better, this summary of some hot-hot man-on-man action (not perhaps to everyone’s taste, but this posting is about syntax and semantics, not watersports, as piss play is delicately referred to in some contexts):

Morgan Black spices up his sex life with Christopher Daniels by soaking him in piss before fucking each other.

Two sentence-final subjectless predicational adjuncts there, and they both need something to supply the referent of the missing subject (they are SPARs): by soaking him with piss, which picks up a referent for its missing subject from the subject of the main clause, Morgan Black; and before fucking each other, which the writer of the copy clearly intended to pick up a referent for its missing subject from the *combination of* the subject of the main clause (Morgan Black again) and the oblique object in that clause, Christopher Daniels. The first exercise in referent-finding is just the default Subject Rule for these things, so there’s no issue. The second exercise in referent-finding is non-default, requiring before fucking each other to be interpreted as ‘before they fuck each other’, where they refers to the set-theoretic union of Black and Daniels (and the semantics of each other then tells you that Black will fuck Daniels and Daniels will fuck Black, as indeed happens in the flick — this is called flip-fucking in the trade). I understand the writer’s intent, but the non-default SPAR is beyond my comfort zone in this case. A dangler too far.


Dance with the one that’s nearest?

November 6, 2012

On today’s Morning Edition on NPR, in the story “Without Heat, Sandy Victims [‘victims of the storm Sandy’, not ‘victims who are covered with sand’] Guard Their Homes”:

He’s living in a house that was partially flooded so it doesn’t get robbed – for a second time.

The sentence adverbial so it doesn’t get robbed … is clearly intended to modify the main clause (he’s living in a house …) — it offers a reason for this man to live in a house that was partially flooded — but some listeners probably had a moment of wondering about partially flooding the house so it doesn’t get robbed. The intended interpretation involves “high attachment” (HA), to the main clause preceding the so-adverbial, rather than “low attachment” (LA), to the relative clause within the main clause. It’s been noted again and again that LA is preferred in syntactic processing, but also noted (see here, for example) that this is only a default, with context, real-world knowledge, and discourse organization often favoring HA instead.

In the cases that people have looked at in terms of LA vs. HA, the issue is how some constituent C  is parsed with respect to preceding material: is it parsed with a lower, smaller predecessor constituent B or with a higher, more inclusive predecessor A (ending in B)? Since the head word of B (was (flooded) in the hurricane example above) will of necessity be nearer to C (the so-adverbial in this example) than the head of A (is (living) in this example) is, this preference is often thought of as a preference for attachment to the nearest, but it’s the structural relationships that are key here.


Possessive controller for SPAR

October 20, 2012

From NPR’s Morning Edition on the 17th, in the story “Farmers Cautious of Drought-Resistant Seeds”:

Z4.72. Like many Iowa farmers, [Gary] Plunkett’s corn harvest numbers have gyrated …

Some usage critics (like Philip B. Corbett, the NYT‘s associate managing editor for standards, in charge of the paper’s style manual) would reject the initial like-phrase out of hand as a “dangling modifier” — see below — but people not under the sway of an explicit rule about these things tend not to see anything at all notable in examples like this one, which are very common, even in careful writing.


Annals of cataphora

October 15, 2012

From the Economist of 12/3/11, p. 43, in “Marijuana in California and Colorado: Highs and laws” [the magazine is fond of jokey titles], after a long first paragraph about medical marijuana boom in Colorado:

While it is allowed in some form in 16 states and Washington, DC, Colorado is the leader in trying to make medicinal pot a legitimate business.

Now, (medical) marijuana is highly topical when this sentence comes along in the discourse. so that’s almost surely the referent of the subject pronoun it in the initial subordinate clause. Nevertheless, I expected this pronoun to be cataphoric, preferably with its referent picked up by the subject of the main clause — but that’s Colorado (where Colorado is paired with 16 states and the District of Columbia), and not a NP referring to marijuana. So I had a brief moment of unfulfilled expectation that wasn’t ironed out until medicinal pot came along, embedded within the main clause.

My reaction to this explicit pronoun subject it is much like many people’s reaction to zero subjects in initial sentence adverbials, in initial SPARs (subjectless predcative adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject). Sometimes the referent is given right there in the preceding context, but still we expect the zero to be cataphoric, preferably to the subject of the main clause.