June 14, 2006

Danglers: discourtesy, not ambiguity

A classic dangling adjunct arrived in the morning spam load:

As an Ace Customer, we are asking your permission to send you relevant e-mails about developments in our product range which could benefit you or save you money.

Who's the Ace Customer? One looks to the main clause and the subject is we. But that's not a possible subject, because *We are an Ace Customer would be deviant (semantically anomalous, I think, but certainly not good). The inference that the Ace Customer they are referring to is supposed to be me has to be drawn a few milliseconds later on, after some mental confusion. It's the familiar minor discourtesy of dangling adjuncts. And one interesting thing about this case is that it still causes its extra second of puzzlement despite the fact the matrix clause subject is not a candidate for being the understood subject of the adjunct. The example reminded me that whatever is going on here (and I am still nowhere near understanding it — none of us in the Fellowship of the Predicate Adjunct understand it yet), it is not about the deleterious effects of ambiguity. There is no ambiguity here. It's an unclarity, not an ambiguity. Those are different.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 14, 2006 07:13 AM