February 12, 2006

Hanging up a participle without getting a subject

Read the following paragraph from Jonathan Kellerman's 1997 novel The Clinic (Bantam Books; see page 23); the narrator, Alex Delaware, is trying to get some information about a controversial university committee, and has phoned the office of a dean of students at UCLA, but is being blown off by the dean's secretary:

When I told the dean's secretary what I was after, her voice closed up like a fat-laden artery and she said she'd get back to me. Hanging up without getting my number, I phoned Milo again.

Does that strike you as linguistically bizarre, or at least striking? Am I alone out here? Hello?

I don't know what The Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct will think, but I find it such an extreme case of a dangling participle that I have to assume some kind of or word-processing error. The second sentence came at me like a smack in the face. The reason may have to do with syntax, semantics, pragmatics, or etiquette — I'm actually not quite sure, because the whole topic is a bit of a mystery to me. But the problem of understanding it is that we get the wrong subject for the verb hang. You see, Alex is not trying to get a number [people keep emailing me to suggest that interpretation, but it does not fit], and he is not the one who first hangs up. The dean's secretary knows the dean will not want to talk to Alex on the subject he is inquiring about, so she says she'll get back to Alex, but she hangs up without taking down a number that would make that possible. That's the point. And the syntax just won't support the point.

This way of putting things would have been fine, given the intended sense:

When I told the dean's secretary what I was after, . . . she said she'd get back to me, hanging up without getting my number. I phoned Milo again.

That correctly identifies the dean's secretary as the one who hung up without getting Alex's number. And so would this:

When I told the dean's secretary what I was after, . . . she said she'd get back to me. Then she hung up without getting my number. I phoned Milo again.

And if you insist on having the second sentence begin with "Hanging up..." but you want to get the right subject, you could do something like this:

When I told the dean's secretary what I was after, . . . she said she'd get back to me. Hanging up without getting my number, she left me with nothing I could do but phone Milo again.

If the subject of "Hanging up..." really was intended to be (implausibly) Alex Delaware — i.e., if he refused to supply his number to the secretary — then this would have conveyed the correct sense:

When I told the dean's secretary what I was after, . . . she said she'd get back to me. Hanging up without giving her my number, I phoned Milo again.

But what Kellerman writes is extraordinarily far from expressing anything like what he wants to express, in my opinion. That second sentence in the red version above makes it sound like Alex Delware hung up the phone without getting his own number, which makes no sense. This surprised me: Kellerman is not a clunky and inexpert writer the way Dan Brown is. Kellerman writes well; his characterizations are rich and generally plausible, and his descriptions literate and generally effective. I have enjoyed a number of his novels recently. I'm inclined to try and track him down and ask him what went wrong with the paragraph quoted. I'm interested in whether he actually considers what he wrote to be a well-chosen, grammatical way of expressing his meaning accurately (he might; stranger things have been known), or whether it was just some kind of unnoticed slip by him or an editor. I'll have the Investigative Services Division at Language Log Plaza try to track him down, and I'll keep you posted.

Added later: The ISD did succeed in tracking Jonathan Kellerman down, and he was kind enough to take a look at the passage in question. What's really interesting is that at first he read it without the context (he had a different edition of The Clinic in front of him, and the sentence was not on page 23), and he misunderstood his own intent just like everyone else, figuring that Alex must have been trying to get a number. The story absolutely rules that out. And when the full context was supplied to him, Jon agreed that he simply could not read the text as having the right meaning. He had no idea how the error could have survived into print despite all the usual editorial scrutiny.

The main relevance of this is that dangling participles are not some kind of silly invention of grammarians. There is a real phenomenon here. If you position a non-finite clause adjunct somewhere that does not allow easy access to the right noun phrase to provide it with an understood subject, you get really serious difficulties of understanding. So serious that even a highly expert best-selling author cannot tell, nine years later, what the hell he could have meant by the sentence, and has to guess. Notice, though, we still don't know where this error came from. Jon cannot remember, even under interrogation by Language Log's ISD. We don't know whether he typed a period where he meant a comma and the copy editor failed to catch it, or whether the copy editor misunderstood and replaced a comma by a period, or what happened. We do know that what happened destroyed intelligibility. So some dangling participles are more than minor style imperfections, they are crashingly impermissible.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 12, 2006 02:40 PM