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.
Archive for the ‘Anaphora’ Category
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.
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.
Posted by Victor Steinbok on ADS-L:
When it was announced that Romney will “unveil” his VP pick Paul Ryan on/in front of USS Wisconsin, I knew someone was going to say it. And [political commentator] Steve Benen did not disappoint–within minutes, his post on the Ryan pick [on the Maddow blog] included this line:
The announcement will be in front of the U.S.S. Wisconsin – which just happens to be Ryan’s home state.
(Actually, Benen was quoting Domenico Montaro and Mark Murray on NBCNews, here.)
Victor noted that the meaning was clear, but still the sentence seemed problematic to him, adding that “the number of examples of this type is not negligible”.
Reported in the Sic! (errors) section of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #794 this morning:
A health report of 18 July on the BBC site about the risks of not taking physical exercise was spotted by Martin Wynne: “The public needed to be warned about the dangers of inactivity rather than just reminded of the benefits of it.”
Here, it at first appears to refer in inactivity, but a bit of thought will convince you that the writer intended it to refer to activity; but activity is inside the word inactivity, and so would (on many accounts) be unavailable as an antecedent for it. The relevant putative generalization is known as the Anaphoric Island Constraint (AIC): words are “islands” for anaphora; anaphora can’t “reach inside” words. (Brief discussion here; examples of AIC violations here and here.)
But things aren’t that simple.
From Victor Steinbok (who found it on Google+), this entertaining sign (from Randwick, NSW, Australia):
The sign allows for two readings, according to whether it refers to the dog or the dog poo. The sign writer intended the second, but the person who took the picture set things up to make the first reading salient.
Last week’s notes from my grand-daughter’s school included this report from a student in the middle school:
In L.A [Language Arts -- what used to be called English] we had a lesson on how to organize a story with a follow-up question: Do people make decisions with his head or her heart.
Now, people is plural, used for generic reference, so the standard pronoun anaphoric to it is they (their in the possessive): with their head or (with) their heart. Why go with singular his or her instead?
Two possible factors. One, people doesn’t look plural; it doesn’t have a plural suffix. And two, peevish objections to “singular they“, even with generic antecedents — Everybody thinks either with their head or (with) their heart — have led people to be suspicious of anaphoric they with generic antecedents, even when these are in fact plural. The proscription against singular they has contaminated ordinary anaphoric usage. (For other cases of proscriptions contaminating perfectly innocent constructions, see here.)
Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman has posted about “sloppy identity” in anaphoric expressions, using an ambiguous exchange in a cartoon as a starting point:
(A) Woman 1 [talking about romance with her husband]: I close my eyes and imagine he’s Tom Hanks.
(B) Woman 2: What if he’s doing the same?
Do the same in Woman 2′s question can be taken in (at least) three ways: as referring to Woman 1′s husband imagining that he’s making love to Tom Hanks (the gay reading, which then becomes the comic point of the strip, since this wasn’t what Woman 2 intended); as referring to Woman 1′s husband imagining that he’s making love to a celebrity (parallel to Woman 1′s imagining that she’s making love to a celebrity); and as referring to Woman 1′s husband imagining that he’s Tom Hanks. This is an exceptionally complex example — more complex than the standard examples in the literature on syntax and semantics — but the second interpretation clearly illustrates “sloppy identity”, with a shift, between the speakers, in how Tom Hanks enters into the love-making.
Simpler examples from Mark’s posting:
George is losing his hair, but Bill isn’t [losing his hair].
Sally forgot her mother’s birthday, but Julia didn’t [forget her mother's birthday].
The first would normally be understood as having sloppy identity, while the second is ambiguous between strict and sloppy readings (you just have to know the context).
(I was a bit startled to discover that sloppy identity hadn’t come up on Language Log before this posting of Mark’s. On this blog, I’ve touched on it only one time, briefly (here).)
Now, from my files, another example about as complex as the cartoon example. From the tv show Bonanza:, the character Hoss speaking:
You can’t blame yourself for that [the death of the addressee’s father], no more than I can.
This would at first appear to be straightforward – Hoss takes no blame for the addressee’s father’s death – but in context it’s to be understood as something like
You can’t blame yourself for that [the death of the addressee’s father], no more than I can blame myself for this.
with this referring to the addressee’s being crippled. And in the episode this stunning shift in implict referents works. Most of the time, sloppy identity isn’t problematic (and it’s something of a marvel that it isn’t), though of course you can use it to float a joke, as in the cartoon exchange.
An account to friends of my sighting a famous Palo Alto resident who happens to be (like me) a Princeton graduate.
Dinner at Mandarin Goumet, couple to my left, the man very familiar-looking, older, ramrod-straight, expensive but understated suit, imperious in tone. Then the guy to his right and my left mentioned Princeton, and he and I both swiveled to look at him for a moment.
The issue is the referent of the he and the referent of the him in the final clause. Two men have been mentioned, and in principle either pronoun could refer to either of them. But my little tale was about the first man mentioned, and he is clearly the referent of the he, so that the second man must be the referent of the him. I could have used the first man and the second man (or some other NPs), but 3sg personal pronouns do the trick just fine, despite the in-principle ambiguity of my version.
From Bruce Webster in e-mail a few days ago, a pointer to an NFL.com story of January 27 about Jeff Fisher leaving as coach of the Tennessee Titans (“Split is best move for both Fisher and Titans” by Michael Lombardi). The final sentence in this passage is the one of interest; the problematic subordinate clause is bold-faced, but the larger context is important:
When defensive line coach Jim Washburn walked out the door and headed to Philadelphia, so did a piece of Fisher. Fisher believes the game is won up front — in both the offensive and defensive lines. He took great pride in being strong in both areas, with his players and coaches. Once he lost Washburn, whom Titans management allowed his contract to expire, Fisher lost any chance of having the kind of team he envisioned.