July 04, 2006

When you freelance, nobody knows you're a dog

I hope my colleagues in the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct didn't miss the amusing quotation, taken from an article about coping with death, at the bottom of page 87 in the June 26 issue of The New Yorker:

I co-parented a beloved boxer dog who, within a week of being asked to write this piece (as if on some cosmic cue), died of a massive heart attack in his apparent prime.

The non-finite clause beginning with being asked is embedded inside an adjunct (it's the complement of the preposition of inside an adjunct preposition phrase headed by within). It needs a subject if it is to be understood. The adjunct is preposed within a supplementary relative clause of which the subject is the relative pronoun who. That relative pronoun is the closest and most obvous candidate to provide the understood subject we need. (The originally intended one is I, but that's too far away to be the first candidate noticed.) But the relative clause is modifying the nominal beloved boxer dog. It's a doozy for misunderstandability. Yet it was published in a magazine (Utne), the editors having apparently failed to spot it. Quite surprising.

We continue to see examples of this sort, often several per week, even in printed sources. Their misunderstandability seems plangent. And yet the writers presumably don't notice, and we suspect most readers don't either.

By the way, for NPR listeners this Fourth of July: the Morning Edition gang did their annual reading of the Declaration of Independence today. How many noticed the dangling adjunct? It begins with "when so suspended". But don't let this grammatical curiosity spoil your whole day. Just keep in mind that dangling adjuncts are not a modern perversion, or the result of a post-1960s moral slackness. Happy Independence Day to all our readers.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 4, 2006 09:41 AM