January 24, 2006

Unlike dangling

Last November Bob Tess mailed me from Macomb County in Michigan to bring to the attention of the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct a nice dangling adjunct case that does not involve a participle. I meant to comment on this at the time, but it got lost in the shuffle. It's about a piece on NPR's Morning Edition. Says Bob:

In a report on the lack of excitement generated by the Lewis and Clark expedition's bicentennial, NPR's Kirk Ziegler reported: "Unlike Lewis and Clark however, people do want to talk about the budget deficit."

Bob adds that Messrs. Lewis and Clark might have been very pleased to talk about a budget deficit of proportions that would have seemed like science fiction to them, only they can't, on account of being dead. That is, he found he was forced to understand Lewis and Clark as an understood subject of want rather than as object of about. He heard the sentence as saying that people want to talk about the budget deficit but Lewis and Clark don't. We were supposed to hear it as saying that people want to talk about the budget deficit but they don't want to talk about Lewis and Clark.

Unlike is an interesting word. It hovers on the boundary between adjectives and prepositions. When it was formed it must have been an adjective, because un- doesn't really attach to anything else. (You don't find *unbetween, *unover, *unwith.) But like now acts a lot more like a preposition in a number of syntactic ways, and unlike has been left in an odd position, not knowing whether to follow the syntax of its root or the syntax suggested by its derivational prefix (as it were; I'm anthropomorphizing lexemes here, which is a bit ridiculous, but I hope you see what I mean).

The relevant difference is that adjective phrases are predicative and mustn't be left to dangle with nothing to predicate about, while preposition phrases are allowed not to be predicative. So you can contrast the behavior of ahead (a preposition, albeit of the kind that does NOT take a noun phrase complement) with that of asleep (an adjective). Ahead doesn't need an understood subject, but asleep does:

  •  Ahead, there was nothing but the open road.
  • *Asleep, there was nothing but the open road.

Which way does unlike go? You decide. It seems to me to be on the cusp. The question is whether you found you read the NPR sentence the way Bob Tess did, or the way that the NPR scriptwriter intended. I guess I lean in the same direction Bob does, which supports the view that unlike a (highly anomalous) adjective.

Why do I say it's anomalous? because adjectives hardly ever take noun phrase complements, but unlike does.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 24, 2006 09:59 AM