January 20, 2004

The Dangling Conjunct

I've come across a candidate for something that might reasonably be called a "dangling conjunct", analogous to the much more familiar "dangling modifier".

A free adjunct is a sentence adverbial of the form

(Intro) X

where Intro is some sort of introductory element and X is an expression that denotes a predicate; the (semantic) subject for this predicate is supplied from context. On one hypothesis -- an incorrect one, I maintain -- a free adjunct is in fact a modifier of the (grammatical) subject of the clause the free adjunct is associated with, so that on the further assumption that modifiers must (except in very special circumstances) be adjacent to their heads, it's predicted that the semantic subject of the free adjunct is simply the denotation of the (grammatical) subject of the main clause. Cases in which the grammatical subject of the main clause does not provide the needed denotation -- cases where some other phrase in the main clause does so, or where the denotation comes from the larger (linguistic or non-linguistic) context -- are labeled "dangling modifiers" and are widely said to be unacceptable.

The crucial bits that I want to pull out of this are (a) the intuition that something's missing from a free adjunct, and (b) the claim that the semantics for the missing stuff is provided by a specific phrase within the sentence.

Now consider constituent coordination, in particular things of the form

(1) Su Pr1 and Pr2
(like My cousin walked up to the penguin and kissed it).
Su Pr1 and Pr2

(1) is interpreted like

(2) Su Pr1 and Su Pr2

So, the intuition is that the second part of (1) is missing something (specifically, a semantic subject), which is, however, provided by a specific phrase within the sentence, namely the Su in the first part of (1). If some other phrase in the sentence provided the missing stuff, or if it came from the larger context, then we'd have a "dangling conjunct" (Pr2).

This is, I think what we have in the following sentence from the Menlo Park (CA) Police Department's printed flyer "DRINKING AND DRIVING IS A DEADLY COMBINATION" (which is provided to drivers stopped at sobriety checkpoints):

We anticipate that a substantial benefit will be gained from the use of Sobriety Checkpoints by increasing the drunk drivers perception of the risk of being detected

and consequently may deter him or her from driving while impaired at any level.

[I've let caps and missing apostrophe stand. And of course the elevated diction. I've also split off Pr2 visually.]

What phrase, then, denotes the thing that may deter him or her from driving while impaired? One possibility is that it's the main-clause subject "we"; but surely that's not what the police department meant to say. Let's agree to discard "we anticipate that" and just look at the embedded material. This has a grammatical subject a substantial benefit and has only two finite VPs afterwards -- what's clearly Pr1 ("will be gained...of being detected") and what looks like it has to be Pr2 ("consequently may deter...at any level"), except that the cops surely didn't mean that benefits deter. So Pr2 is a dangling conjunct.

There are three candidates for the phrase supplying a Su for Pr2: "the use of Sobriety Checkpoints" (unlikely, since the following material "by increasing..." doesn't belong with "the use of Sobriety Checkpoints"), or either "the drunk driver's perception of the risk of being detected" or "the risk of being detected" (which at least make sense, but don't have a Pr1 parallel to Pr2).

Maybe the writer was aiming, sort of, at "by increasing the drunk driver's perception of the risk of being detected and consequently deterring him or her from driving while impaired at any level", but wanted to introduce the modal semantics of "may" and then got stuck with a (non-parallel) finite Pr2. Or perhaps the writer framed a thought along the lines of "because the use of Sobriety Checkpoints increases..." or "because Sobriety Checkpoints increase..." and compacted it into an all-purpose "by increasing...", but then forgot that Pr1 was non-finite.

But this is mind-reading. In any case, the result is a dangling conjunct. A stunner, in fact.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 20, 2004 06:44 PM