March 01, 2005

Without Washington's support... who??

An astonishing dangling modifier from Ivan Watson on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" show this morning (listen to the story here; the example is just after three and a half minutes in). Talking about the Kurds and the brief period during which they overcame old feuds and rose in a united rebellion against Iraqi Arab rule, Watson goes on:

Without Washington's support, however, Saddam Hussein quickly crushed the revolt.

How's that again? Who was without the support of Washington?

Here's the technical grammatical description. The preposition phrase without Washington's support functions here as a clause adjunct at the beginning of the clause. It is understood as modifying the clause, but in a predicative way. It means what "without receiving Washington's support" would mean. We have an implicit argument slot to fill: who is it that didn't have Washington's support?

What we need is a target for the predication — roughly, a logical subject we could put with "receive American support" to make a clause with a meaning that makes things explicit in the right way. In such cases, it is extremely common for the subject of the matrix clause to be the key to making things clear. To take a couple of random examples pulled from the text of Bram Stoker's Dracula, when we read "Without saying any more he took his seat", we understand that the person who did not say any more was the person referred to as "he" (Quincy Morris, in this case). When we read "Without taking his eyes from Mina's face, Dr. Van Helsing motioned me to pull up the blind", we understand that it was Dr. Van Helsing who did not take his eyes from Mina's face.

"Dangling modifier" is the name prescriptive grammarians have given to the kind of construction where the main clause subject does not make clear the identity of the unexpressed target of the predication that is expressed in the adjunct. In many cases this causes little trouble, as the better usage books agree. But in the worst cases for intelligibility, the matrix clause subject is a disastrously wrong choice for the target of predication, with sometimes misleading and sometimes ludicrous effect. The first example cited by The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style (by Paul W. Lovinger; New York: Penguin Reference, 2000) is as clear a case as one could want, taken from a book about cannabis (if you could steel yourself, please, I want no politically incorrect giggling at this one):

Although widely used by the men, Bashilange women were rarely allowed to smoke cannabis.

Adopting the matrix clause subject (Bashilange women) as the target of predication for used by the man yields a truly unfortunate misunderstanding.

I know that a linguist like me is always assumed by the prescriptivist community to instantiate what E. B. White calls "the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow", as he tells his editor firmly that he will make no compromise with "the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists" ( click here for White's remarks in context). But in fact, despite my scientific interest in describing languages as they actually are, I am as free as anyone else to have negative reactions to unintentional bathos or unhelpful confusion caused by bad writing. I think cases as plangent as the Bashilange example fully deserve the ridicule and censure that prescriptivists are so eager to heap upon them. However, it should not be overlooked that they're actually rather rare. Most dangling modifier cases slip by smoothly in context without anyone noticing them, which probably does mean there is no rigid syntactic prohibition against them built into the correctness conditions for the language; the principles they violate are more subtle pragmatic ones about normal understanding of implicit arguments in context.

I was quite surprised to catch such a great example of the sort of dangler you should avoid at all costs, and to find it in scripted speech on National Public Radio. Leaving it unclear whether it was the betrayed rebels or the nightmare dictator who lacked American support is a pretty gross error, especially given the history of America's vacillating alliances in Iraq during the 1980s and the 1990s.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 1, 2005 11:34 AM