March 10, 2005

Stunningly inept modifier manners

A small circle of grammarians that I belong to (Rodney Huddleston, Chris Potts, Arnold Zwicky, and me) collects "dangling modifier" examples (I said something about some related examples in this recent post). That is, we are collecting published sentences in which a fronted modifier constituent that is intended to have a predicative interpretation (roughly, it is meant to have an understood subject) gets interpreted with something other than the matrix clause subject as its intended subject, or fails to be interpreted with an appropriate subject at all. Arnold Zwicky recently collected a speciment in a Palo Alto Daily News story (March 5, page 69) about the Palo Alto Toyota dealership, which is probably going to have to move to a larger site outside of the city to gain higher sales volume, according to the manager, Mr Kopacz. The story focuses mainly on the plans for the new site. But then it continues:

Generating $66 million in sales revenue last year, Kopacz estimates that a larger dealership with a freeway billboard could generate $130 to $140 million in sales.

Who's doing all that generating? Kopacz?

As Arnold remarked when he sent this example around, there's no way you can get that initial clause generating $66 million in sales revenue last year to feel like it's about the present dealership. Struggling to find a suitable subject for generating, one comes upon the main clause subject Kopacz, and one inexorably comes to think for a few seconds that he is the one generating that sales revenue. But's that's not what they meant. They meant that the old dealership soon to be replaced generated $66 million last year. But they didn't make that clear.

Arnold calls the sentence "stunningly inept". I agree with him. The line we take on examples of this kind, you see, is not that they violate the syntactic correctness conditions for English — they are simply too common for that to be the case. Roughly, what we think is that the syntax of English leaves things open for you to design your paragraphs in such a way that preposed non-finite adjunct clauses will, in context, be easily and naturally linked up with suitable understood subjects. And as always when you are left some freedom to do things whichever way you judge to be appropriate, you can screw it up. You can write something stunningly inept that baffles the heck out of an intelligent reader for several seconds. As I've said before, that should at the very least count as bad grammatical manners, the syntactic analog of dining goofs like rinsing your fingers in the consommé, or eating the butter from the butter dish.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 10, 2005 09:30 PM