Skipping the rat

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From the allmusic.com biography of the heavy metal band Celebrity Skin (apparently unrelated to the 1998 Hole album of the same name), a recent addition to the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct's collection of epically dangling modifiers:

At one show in particular, ex-Germs/45 Grave drummer Don Bolles went to review the band's live performance for the L.A. Weekly newspaper and gave the band a favorable review. The following week the band went to Bolles' apartment in hopes of persuading him to join the group. When asked to join the band, Bolles' pet rat went into a spastic fit and died. Bolles took this as some sort of strange sign and joined the group cementing his spot as the band's permanent drummer.

It may seem plausible that a heavy metal band would ask a pet rat to become its drummer, but it's reasonably clear in context that it was Bolles rather than his rat who was invited to join.

The anaphor implicit in the "when asked" clause needs to skip the following sentence's subject ("pet rat") in order to connect to the name "Bolles", which is a possessive modifier of that subject. Thus this example is distantly related to an old issue about possessive antecedents for pronouns. However, I suspect that skipping the rat will be a problem even for those who (like me) are puzzled by the "possessive antecedent proscription" in the classic cases like these:

"Menand's acumen deserts him", 10/5/2003
"Louis Menand's pronouns", 10/8/2003
"Grammaticality, anaphora, and all that",  10/21/2003
"More theory trumping practice",  5/22/2008

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22 Comments »

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    Is "skipping the rat" related to "jumping the shark"? Inquiring minds want to know.

  2. Peter said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    @Dick Margulis: or, possibly, to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo?

  3. Michael Briggs said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    I have the impression that 'Bolles" is singular. The author of this piece, however, makes a plural possessive out of his name: Bolles'. This is a topic on which, as my friends can attest, I can get tiresomely pedantic.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    No, Michael Briggs, the author is not making a plural possessive out of his name. Singular nouns ending in s sometimes take just an apostrophe, reflecting pronunciation. And pronunciation will vary, thus spelling with it.

  5. Beer Me! said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:47 am

    Also, "Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct" would be a great name for a band.

  6. Michael Briggs said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    Ellen K.: "Sometimes," you say. I prefer the styles of the New York Times and The New Yorker, where the possessive would have been rendered as Bolles's (which does, at least to my ear, reflect the pronunciation.

  7. Sili said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    Very strange sign, indeed. I'da thought most superstitious people would take their pet's death as a bad omen.

  8. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    Most superstitious people aren't heavy metal drummers.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    Michael Briggs, you can prefer whatever style you want. However, your preferences do not change the facts of other people's usages.

  10. Emily said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    First a fishing wallaby, now a rat being asked to join a band. Such fascinating animal behavior recorded here lately!

  11. Philip said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    If there's a family named Jones, they're called the Joneses, and their house is the Joneses' or, alternatively, the Joneses's. I'd pronounce "Jones" as [jonz], and "Joneses" as [jonziz].

    But either [jonziziz] or [jonziz] would work for me for "Joneses'/Joneses's" in a sentence like "We're going to the Joneses' house for dinner tonight.

    Sorry, my computer doesn't do the IPA.

  12. Jeff Carney said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    Michael Briggs, surely you realize that publishers' style guides do not exist to legislate correctness. They exist to facilitate consistency and to simplify choice making. They keep reporters from distracting everyone in the office with questions that have been asked a million times before.

  13. Steve Kass said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

    @Jeff: Nothing in Michael Briggs's comments indicates or suggests to me that he doesn't realize what publishers' style guides are for. I imagine he also realizes that most of them, including the Chicago Manual of Style (finally! yay!), call for ending these singular possessives with an s. Michael's pedantry is likely shared by many of us whose last names end in a positive number of s's. It is by me.

  14. Paul said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    @Steve: Michael Briggs' or Briggs's level of knowledge about the purpose of publishers' style guides has nevertheless no effect whatsoever on the fact that the usage he dislikes is still a singular, not a plural, possessive, and, whether he likes it or not, is still perfectly correct.

  15. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

    This thread has drifted far from its initial focus. To bring it back on track, I'll just point out that "Skipping the Rat" is a far better band name than "Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct".

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    I am 100% on board with the point Ellen K makes; people are free to put their apostrophes anywhere they want, and do. But for Petes's sake, this is a bit off topic. On topic, I am amused that the writer of the subject sentence actually believed it made perfect sense. Does this mean that as long as most of the needed words are somewhere in the sentence, their actual order and relationships are irrelevant?

  17. Steve F said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    I have absolutely no problem with possessive antecedents for pronouns, and find the sentence Louis Menad objects to entirely acceptable, but I certainly don't find this dangling participle so, which leads me to suggest that the distant relation that Mark perceives is very distant indeed.

    As Geoff Pullum has pointed out on more than one occasion, dangling participles are very common even in the work of reputable authors, and can often be entirely clear and unambiguous, but this is hardly the case here. It is only rats' well-known inability to keep time that enables us to make correct sense of the sentence (and, given the eccentricities of Heavy Metal bands and their drummers perhaps not even then.) It reminds me of – and may in future replace – the deliberately awful example I sometimes use with my EFL students to explain the difference between 'Riding my bike, I saw my dog come to greet me' and 'Riding my bike, my dog came to greet me.' Improbably talented pets obviously make good example sentences.

  18. Mark said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    "Improbably talented pets" would make a great first album name for new band "Skipping the Rat".

    Getting back to the original source… I was also a bit confused by "ex-Germs/45 Grave drummer". Is "ex-" mathematically transitive across "Germs/45 Grave"? How come there is no possessive marker on 45 Grave?

    Makes my head spin.

  19. Frank said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    This is that lost sequel to Stuart Little, isn't it?

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    "Ex-45 Grave drummer," "45 Grave ex-drummer," and "45 Grave's ex-drummer all seem grammatical to me, but "ex-45 Grave's drummer" would strike me as syntactically ill-formed. And the same when you add "Germs/" to capture the fact that the guy was in two prior bands thought salient in context to mention. (45 Grave imho lacks the general historical/aesthetical significance of the Germs; I think of 45 Grave mostly in connection with their ex-guitarist Paul B. Cutler.) There are also issues with intonation/pauses that might be reflected in writing by commas. So, e.g., "Former Germs drummer Belinda Carlisle" you can say straight through, but "the Germs' former drummer, Belinda Carlisle" would have a pause.

  21. Philip said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    If I remember right, the first sentence of Norman Mailer's Egypt novel ("Ancient Evenings"? I can't remember the title, probably because the book was so absolutely forgettable) contains a dangling participle.

  22. Gerg said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    A similar occurrence where the headline seems to imply, if you don't "skip the rat" that Boston had a tragic zombie death:

    http://www.universalhub.com/crime/20120416-elderly-woman-dies-stab-wound-south-boston.html

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