Firemen, dental practice, and danglers

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Said the story in the Ottawa Citizen:

The woman was trapped in her car unconscious for about 20 minutes while firefighters performed an extraction, he said.

And alert Language Log reader Diane commented: "I had no idea our firefighters were also trained at dentistry!" She also asked me whether the misleading phrase an extraction was a dangler (an analog of the dangling modifier that prescriptivists warn against).

It isn't, despite the fact that we are not directly given a logical subject for the implicit reference to extracting. An extraction is a noun phrase (NP) functioning as direct object of the verb performed, and a direct object never needs a predicand (or "logical subject", i.e., an NP it can act as a predicate of). It's only predicative adjuncts that can be danglers.

It is possible, though, for a predicative adjunct to consist of nothing but an NP. That occurs in A skilled fireman, Dan didn't take long to get the woman out of the vehicle, where Dan is the predicand so we understand that Dan is being described as a skilled fireman. But such an NP can also be a dangler, as in ??A skilled fireman, things didn't take long, which sounds deeply weird because you aren't told who is a skilled fireman.

Diane is of course quite right that the sentence in the Citizen sounds extremely silly. I actually think it's a case of nerdview: perform an extraction must be how fire station record books and regulation manuals would refer to getting trapped women out of crushed vehicles. A reporter with sense would have translated the nerviewese and said "The woman was trapped in her car unconscious for about 20 minutes while firefighters got her out."

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44 Comments »

  1. Ben Artin said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    "Extraction" and "extrication" are indeed technical terms in emergency services. They have specific meanings within that domain, and their use is not limited to record books and manuals.

  2. Sili said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    Not that it matters, but as a non-native I had no trouble understanding the statement, and I actually thought bringing up teeth was a show of bad faith.

    Funny how that works.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    @Ben Artin: Is there a difference between an extraction and an extrication?

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Also striking, I find, is the use of "trapped in her car" to describe an unconscious woman. To me the verb "trap" implies that the trappee is trying to escape, or would try to escape but for being trapped. (For example, my keys might get "locked" in my car, but if they're "trapped" in my car, then something very strange has taken place.)

  5. Ellen K. said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    I take trapped as meaning stuck such that someone else can't simply pull her out. If my keys are stuck somewhere that I can reach them, but can't pull them out, then I might say they are trapped.

  6. Kip said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Isn't the nerdview on this reader's side, somehow thinking "an extraction" means a dental operation? To a normal person, it just means an event where something is removed from somewhere, from which they would infer that the something was the unconscious woman and the somewhere was her car. "Extraction" is hardly a technical term to most people.

    This seems as asinine as saying "The menu from this Chinese restaurant says 'free delivery.' I didn't know they were adept at birthing babies!!"

  7. DMH said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    The original headline didn't even give me pause, and I have no objection to an unconscious person being trapped, either.

  8. NW said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    I disagree that an 'extraction' is any act of extracting in everyday speech: I can't imagine saying it naturally in connexion with, for example, extracting a car from mud, or a coin from behind a sofa: 'The extraction of the car took us an hour.' In normal speech an extraction is the extraction of a tooth, and writers should be aware that words have normal associations, and that they can't freely use 'extraction' as if it meant neutrally "act of extracting".

  9. Jens Fiederer said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    The sentence didn't sound at all unnatural to me. Since I am not a firefighter, are you calling me a nerd?

  10. Dougal Stanton said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    I agree with a number of the other commenters that extraction is not an unusual word for getting something out of something especially if, as is the case here, the job required some degree of effort and skill. I would certainly have never made the leap to teeth. I may be unconsciously biased as I read a couple of EMT/paramedic blogs and no dentist blogs…

    FWIW the majority of the first google page when searching "perform an extraction" is for chemistry nerds.

  11. mgh said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

    unless one explicitly says "tooth extraction", the dental meaning is not the first to come to my mind. if anything, the military sense is (ie, "extract troops from the battlefield").

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    I would take the dental meaning to be the primary one; that is the fire fighters were extracting some organ or another.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    NW, while you may be right about every day speech, this isn't everyday speech. It's a written news account, and within that, an indirect quote from a paramedics spokesperson.

    Although, for me, dental extractions are not a subject of everyday speech either. And if I did have to refer to one, I'd likely refer to it as removing a tooth; no use of the word "extraction".

  14. gfs said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    I too find nothing infelicitous about the use of "extract" in that context, and to me "extraction" in the dental or medical sense is just about as technical a term as "extraction" in any other sense, including the sense which EMTs apparantly use it in.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    I have no trouble with "trapped," but how was she trapped? If she was simply locked in the car or perhaps restrained by her seat belt, I'd say she was extracted, but if she was entangled in some unusual way as a result of the crash, I'd go with extricated. No dental implication for me. Isn't "extraction" also used in a military context to mean removal of forces?

  16. bfwebster said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    I can't imagine saying it naturally in connexion with, for example, extracting a car from mud, or a coin from behind a sofa.

    Uh, I can and almost certainly have. (Have raised a lot of kids, I often made reference to them performing an extraction of cash from my wallet.) Actually, it's fairly common office-speak, such as performing an extraction to pull someone out of a meeting. Use is generously humorous and deliberately pedantic. ..bruce..

  17. John Roth said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    Garner (*) (3rd edition, p340) is concerned with the misuse of extricate for extract. I'm somewhat bemused because his definition of extricate — to remove someone from a tangled encumbrance or situation — would seem to be the better usage here, especially since it took them 20 minutes.

    I certainly have no difficulty with extract in this situation, which seems to put me on the other side of Garner's concern.

    (*) Garner's Modern American Usage.

  18. MattF said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

    It appears that both extraction and extrication are used to describe the process of getting someone out of a crushed vehicle. The two terms don't seem to have any semantic difference in this context.

  19. Diane said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    Of course it was obvious what was meant from context, but 'extraction' seemed a bit odd to use. After all, no one would think a restaurant talking about 'home deliveries' would be offering a mid wife service, but we use 'delivery' in way more contexts than 'extraction'. Thinking about it some more, I wonder if regional variance is also at work here. Perhaps the term 'extraction' is used in more contexts in other parts of the English speaking world than here in Ottawa/Ontario/Canada.

  20. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    I would naturally read 'an extraction' as meaning a dental procedure, especially in 'performed an extraction'. That relates to this phrase specifically, not to the verb 'extract', or the noun 'extraction' in other contexts – it would be possible, for instance, to refer to the extraction of oil from the earth's crust.

  21. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    I found it awkward because the less-jargony "extracted her" or "extricated her" is shorter and plainer.

  22. Franz Bebop said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    For "extraction" the first Google hit is the Wikipedia entry for the word, which has a nice list of common uses. Tooth extraction is just one item in a long list.

    This might be a small bit of nerdview, but nerdview is common enough among police and firefighters and the journalists who report on them. The firefighters extracted the subject from the vehicle. No big deal.

  23. Greg said,

    March 20, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

    I think another technical use of the term "extraction" is the removal of whiteheads and blackheads during facials and other spa treatments.

  24. Aviatrix said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 12:53 am

    I'm with Kip, and the many others who see extraction as the process of getting something out of something else, perfectly clear in this context as woman from car. I'd call coin from couch an extrication (and now I'm curious as to the emergency services difference between the two).

    I suspect the extraction = tooth people have had the misfortune to have required an above average quantity of dental attention.

  25. empty said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    My initial impression was: this is easy to interpret and apparently "extraction" is a term used in the rescue biz.

  26. Fred said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    My dictionary says "the action of taking out something". It doesn't even mention dentistry. (to be fair, it's the little/reduced dictionary popup that appears when hover over a word and press CMD+CTRL+D on a Mac). Dental extraction was not the first thing that came to mind when I read this quote, and I went to dental school!

  27. Jen said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    Diane is of course quite right that the sentence in the Citizen sounds extremely silly.

    I do not believe it sounds silly. As a commoner and member of the middle class, it sounds perfectly grammatical and appropriate to me.

    Some people here have mentioned the possible difference between "extract" and "extricate". I would like to add some other examples:

    damp
    dampen

    Technically, "dampen" means to make something moist, and "damp" means to reduce or check vibration. For example, a rubber grommet used in automobile engine mount can be said to "damp vibration" caused by the action of the pistons. Yet, it is common to hear everyone use "dampen" to mean "damp". An auto mechanics instructor once cautioned his students about this correct usage. He took out an alternator, and proceeded to dump a glass of water on it. He said that is called "dampening an alternator; but if you want to damp the noise it produces, you add this part to reduce the vibration".

    Another example:

    a) submit – verb transitive: 'to present something (to someone) for inspection'

    b) submit – verb transitive: 'to force someone to submit [def. c below]'

    c) submit – verb intransitive: 'to give in, yield'

    So in the sport of mixed martial arts, when fighter A puts a submission hold, such as a rear naked choke, on his opponent, fighter B, and fighter B gives up, fighter A is said to have submitted fighter B (meaning, fighter A forced fighter B to submit, or give in). How is that for bizarre? A verb goes from meaning to yield, to meaning to force someone to yield. If you don't believe me, just watch the UFC on Spike TV one night and see. Moreover, no linguist has ever described this usage except me. Maybe because they are too busy in their ivy towers and not involved with the common folk enough to realize this usage exists (the author of this blog post not being familiar with firemen's terminology and thinking the headline was silly could be another example)? It's not even in the OED. Nor is the verb "tap out", meaning to submit to your opponent in the combat sports by tapping on a surface three times with your hand.

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    @Jen:

    So in the sport of mixed martial arts, when fighter A puts a submission hold, such as a rear naked choke, on his opponent, fighter B, and fighter B gives up, fighter A is said to have submitted fighter B (meaning, fighter A forced fighter B to submit, or give in). How is that for bizarre? A verb goes from meaning to yield, to meaning to force someone to yield. If you don't believe me, just watch the UFC on Spike TV one night and see. Moreover, no linguist has ever described this usage except me. Maybe because they are too busy in their ivy towers and not involved with the common folk enough to realize this usage exists (the author of this blog post not being familiar with firemen's terminology and thinking the headline was silly could be another example)? It's not even in the OED. Nor is the verb "tap out", meaning to submit to your opponent in the combat sports by tapping on a surface three times with your hand.

    It will not surprise you that tap out has a similar transitive meaning. The first Google hit I got for tapped him out is this video of military training.

    I noticed another one last night while watching a bridge tournament on Bridgebase Online. You can ride a horse, so you can just ride, so in bridge you can let a card or trick ride instead of taking it at the first opportunity. So a commentator suggested that the declarer could "ride a club around to dummy" (the hand that played last) instead of taking it in his hand (which played second).

    Your "ivy tower" strikes me as a perfect eggcorn. It's slightly altered from the common phrase ivory tower, and there's a semantic connection to the cliché ivy-covered halls of many of the oldest American colleges, hence Ivy League. But maybe you can actually tell the eggcornologists—was it a mistake of that kind? Or a typo? Or deliberate playing with the two words?

    (Hoping again this works better in reality than in Preview.)

  29. Walter Underwood said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    A tooth extraction is domain-specific jargon, too. "A reporter with sense" would translate that "pulling a tooth".

    This is completely normal for jargon. One of our search engine customers made solid fuel motors for missiles and was extremely surprised to have "arugula" suggested as a synonym for "rocket". That makes perfect sense in the food domain.

    I think the sentence is fine. There is plenty of context for the jargon. On top of that, it is an indirect quotation, and a reporter with sense would be careful about rewriting that enough that it didn't sound like a firefighter.

  30. Army1987 said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    Teeth are not the first thing I think about when I hear "extraction", but then I'm not a native speaker.

    we are not directly given a logical subject for the implicit reference to extracting

    What? How could it be more explicit that it was the firefighters who extracted her?

  31. Stuart Martin said,

    March 21, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    Native NZE speaker here. The dentistry-specific use of 'extraction' would not have occurred to me without prompting, Actually, I was surprised that ANYBODY thinks of that usage as the primary or most natural one. My reaction to the number of posts insisting that "extraction" in the emergency services context is unlcear jargon was to wonder how much time the writers spend either having teeth extracted or in the company of tooth-extractors.

  32. Graeme said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 4:12 am

    I wonder if rescue workers use 'extraction' for removing corpses as well? I'm guessing so.

    It's that hint that the victim is reduced to a mere physical object that grates, as much as the toothy analogy.

    Nb, I've nothing against specialised workers using specialised language; sometimes it even helps them cope by depersonalising the trauma that confronts them.

    But why would the media not use the more humane, everyday phrase 'freed her' (or 'attempted to free her' (if unsuccessful), rather than 'performed an extraction'?

  33. JanetK said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    I think Canadians take their teeth very seriously! More or less any use of 'an extraction' can be replaced by 'taking x out of y'. If you have identified the x and the y in the context then 'an extraction' will do without any problem with meaning. I suspect that only Canadians are so fixated on their teeth, to immediately assume removal of teeth in spite of a clearly different context clearly identified. Before anyone gets angry, I like Canadians and their magnificent teeth and am only make a mild funny joke!

  34. Terry Collmann said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    The point about "performed an extraction", surely, is that (1) it's extremely unnatural firefighters'/emergency services technospeak, and should not appear in a newspaper report, which should use normal idiomatic language wherever possible, and (2) it completely depersonalises the poor trapped woman.

  35. quodlibet said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    Am I the only one (mis)reading the story as implying that the victim's rescue was delayed because the firefighters were busy elsewhere with an extraction?

  36. Jim said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    "It's that hint that the victim is reduced to a mere physical object that grates, as much as the toothy analogy."

    That's about all an unconscious body is.

  37. Graeme said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    Jim you great materialist.

    A tooth is never 'freed' from a body; it dies outside a body. An unconscious person is freed for a reason: so they can revive.

  38. Nick said,

    March 22, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

    "got her out" is faster but it does not call to mind the technique or operation of removing someone in the special case of an accident, which "performed an extraction" does.

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    i wonder if there's a generational thing going on here, like people for whom the primary meaning of "analysis" is "psychotherapy"? i can't imagine ever personally saying "i'm going to have an extraction done next friday", but i can easily imagine a character on mad men doing so.

  40. Franz Bebop said,

    March 23, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    Anyone whose shorts are knotted over "extraction" ought to be having a full-on conniption over the paragraph that follows it in the original article. If nerdview is a crime for cops, what about doctors?

    The victim was transported to The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus trauma centre with right-side head trauma, a fractured right orbital bone just above her eye and arterial bleeding in the right orbital area, Côté said.

    (BTW, I hope the woman mentioned in the article is recovering and feeling comfortable.)

  41. Will said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    I'm a few days late on this, but getting around to read the back-log of posts I've been meaning to. I just want to add one more data point. The dental meaning of "extraction" did not even occur to me until mentioned. In context, the only meaning that came to mind was the one they intended. And out of context, the sense that immediately comes to my mind is "file extraction" — as from a compressed archive.

    Extraction is a very general term to me, and like so many other people here (a majority), it is just "removing something from something else". Moreover, it has the connotations of the removal being done as a result of a technical process, without actually denoting anything about that process.

    So "extracting soldiers from a battlefield", "extracting teeth from a mouth", "extracting files from a compressed archive", and yes, "extracting trapped bodies from a vehicle" are all perfectly good uses of the word because they are technical methods of removing one thing from another. On the other hand, the example someone gave above of "extracting money from a wallet" sounds funny to me (semantically correct, but it is kind of comical because of the lack of technique involved). The similar example of extracting a quarter for the sofa also sounds a bit comical, because there is not much technique involved. And because of this technical connotation, the word is probably viewed as somewhat jargon-like in whatever fields it is being applied to. But that's the beauty of it — it is paradoxically a generic jargon term.

    Anyway, the whole point I'm trying to make is that i think the reported used EXACTLY the right word — a word that conveys the removal of one thing (a trapped person) from another (a vehicle) via a process that was technical (we don't have know what this process was, but the connotation lets us know that it was careful and procedural). Just saying "got her out" does not have the important technical connotations, and I believe the reporter, like the majority of the people here, did not immediately jump to "teeth" when presented with "extraction",

  42. Will said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    @Franz Bebop: My medical knowledge does not exceed that of any educated reader, and that medical quote does not seem overly-jargony or technical to me. The only technical terms they used were "orbital bone" and "arterial" — and they satisfactorily defined the former. And the latter is common enough that a lot of people will know what it means, and even if you don't know what it means, it's not important, because you get the gist from the main word in that phrase, "bleeding".

  43. Christine Choi said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    How about using the word "rescue" or any variation thereof? Of course words have multiple meanings but for the sake of this conversation and as a dentist myself, I have my own definitive meaning of the term extraction. Now when I hear or see the word rescue I immediately think of a being, i.e a person, animal, etc…The use of extraction here leads the reader down a murky path in my opinion. Anyhow, it's interesting to read everyone's comments.

  44. Diane said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    Old old thread I know. But I have been struck at how the news stories, at least here, now use the term 'extrication' instead of 'extraction'. Perhaps the editors all read language log! I'd love to hear if this is the case.

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