The case of the persevering pedestrian

« previous post | next post »

Calvin Men, "Police investigate Santa Cruz pedestrian's death", Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/4/2014:

A 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street after being struck by a car.

G.A., who sent me the link, added "Pretty plucky of him to cross the street after he had been hit, I thought".

The Stanford parser similarly embeds "after being struck by a car" inside "while crossing Mission Street" (and the Berkeley parser does too):

The attachment of phrase-final modifiers in English is notoriously hard for parsers, but in this case the odds are against the writer of the Sentinel's lede, who needs us to understand somehow that the unfortunate pedestrian [[died after being struck by a car] while crossing Mission Street], not  that he [died while [crossing Mission Street [after being struck by a car]]].

This might seen to be impossible given the order of the while and after clauses, but out of nine examples in COCA with a similar structure, one does imply attaching "after VERBing" at the level of the matrix verb phrase, in parallel with "while VERBing", permitting a pragmatically coherent reading:

Peter L. Picknelly, who built Peter Pan Bus Lines into the nation's largest privately owned and operated bus company, died Monday while vacationing in Portugal after suffering an apparent stroke, a company spokeswoman said.

I don't have any problem with the temporal logic of Mr. Picknelly's demise, which clearly involves suffering a stroke while vacationing in Portugal, not vacationing in Portugal after suffering a stroke. But still, for some reason, I'm unable to construe the sentence about the Santa Cruz pedestrian except in the way implied by G.A.'s somewhat callous quip. Maybe I've just been primed.

The obligatory screen shot:



  1. dw said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:55 pm

    The punctuation makes the report of Picknelly's death clearer. It's not the most felicitous prose, but try:

    A 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died, late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street, after being struck by a car.

  2. dw said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

    Whoops! Please ignore my comment about the Picknelly death report. For about the 100th time, I need to check my comment before posting to LL :)

  3. Ross Presser said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 12:55 am

    Perhaps it is easier to mentally embed "stroke" in "vacation" than to embed "struck by car" in "street crossing", because a vacation typically lasts much longer than a street crossing?

  4. michael farris said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 2:08 am

    Perhaps this is the journatic effect?

  5. Ken Brown said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:03 am

    Why didn't they write "… died after being struck by a car while crossing Mission Street late on Thursday night"?

    Fewer words, more standard English, less ambiguity.

    Headlinese is for headlines, not paragraphs.

  6. Ken Brown said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:04 am

    I can't count. Same number of words if you drop the "on". Still easier to read though.

  7. Rubrick said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:09 am

    It's quite unusual for Santa Cruz to defeat both Stanford and Berkeley. Go Banana Slugs!

  8. pj said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 5:48 am

    @ Ken Brown
    Well, indeed – or "…died late Thursday night after being struck by a car while crossing Mission Street"

  9. pj said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 6:24 am

    for some reason, I'm unable to construe the sentence about the Santa Cruz pedestrian except in the way implied by G.A.'s somewhat callous quip. Maybe I've just been primed.

    I don't think it's just the priming; I think it's genuinely badly phrased in a way that the Portugal example isn't. If you have a stroke while on holiday (forgive me, I'm British), you're still there, you're still conceptually 'on holiday', while suffering the effects. If you start to cross a road and get hit by a car, by the time you're flying through the air, or lying on the tarmac, you've essentially stopped crossing.

    i.e. in 'died while vacationing in Portugal after suffering an apparent stroke', the vacationing may have started before or after the apparent stroke (it reads primarily to me, without a comma after 'Portugal', as afterwards, but I can resolve it as before in context), but certainly the vacation finished with the death, not with the stroke. That's fine (for me).

    In an exactly parallel manner, the only way that "died late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street after being struck by a car" can be read is that the road-crossing activity was terminated by the death, not by the collision (while leaving ambiguous whether the road-crossing started before or after the collision – though implying the latter due to the lack of a comma). That defintely gives us a persistent pedestrian.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 6:50 am

    How about: . . . died Monday from an apparent stroke while vacationing in Portugal . . .

  11. Ted said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    The way I think about this is that the more-relevant concept should come first, followed by the background information. (It might help to think of the former as the "dependent idea," by analogy to dependent clauses.)

    In the case of the unfortunate Santa Cruz pedestrian, it doesn't really matter whether he actually expired in the street. He might have been knocked onto the sidewalk by the car, or dragged there, or critically injured on the scene but able to hang on until after the EMTs got him into an ambulance. The news is the car-hitting, which both occurred while he was crossing the street and preceded his death in a proximate-causal sort of way. (Sorry for the infelicitous compound noun in that sentence, but I can't think of a better one.) So the headline writer got it wrong.

    In Picknelly's case, by contrast, the key ideas are that he died of a stroke and he died while on vacation. The headline would be equally valid in the unlikely case that he suffered the stroke before going to Portugal. But, as pj points out, that's not generally the important concept in an obituary headline – it's about the cause and circumstances of death.

  12. Ray Dillinger said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    Same number of words, much clearer construction.

    Late Thursday night , a 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died after being struck by a car while crossing Mission Street.

    Of course, a sentence like the above may not suit journalistic purposes because they would regard the timing of the death as being less important (and therefore less appropriate to begin the sentence with) than the age of the victim.

    I have never understood the obsession with age in journalism, but that seems to be the very first thing they are obliged to communicate about anyone.

  13. Darkwhite said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

    Regarding age in news:
    It's used to clue readers in on whether the person might be an acquaintance – and if the age matches, investigate further – without explicitly identifying the person with name.

  14. C D C said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 3:34 pm

    How do I make comments on this page?
    I get so annoyed when I hear sloppy English on the news.
    Today I heard thatone of the killers of that soldier in London was going to "appeal his sentence" instead of "appeal against his sentence"!

  15. Bloix said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    I don't have a problem with either one. It is possible to die while crossing the street, and assuming his death was more or less instantaneous I see no problem with adding that he died after being struck by a car. The phraseology makes it clear that he died out in the middle of the street, not hours later after he had been taken to a hospital in an ambulance.

  16. Rebecca said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    I agree with Bloix in finding it quite easy to get the intended reading, especially if I pause a beat before "after".

    There is also the brutal reading in which the car strike both caused the man's death and completed the street crossing for him.

  17. Gordon Campbell said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 7:10 pm

    Careful CDC! Peeving about incorrect English is fun, but round here the peeving fun has been taken to a new level. Language Log peeves about peevers. The reason: most peeves are wrong. Take your example, for example – ‘appeal’ is used in just the way you condemn by plenty of good writers.
    Once you get with the program, you’ll find it’s much more satisfying. You see, peevers like to feel superior to others. Peeving about peeving allows you to feel superior to those who feel unwarrantedly superior to others – it adds a bit more moral righteousness to your peeving.

  18. Gordon Campbell said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    Yeah, but (& also). Transitive 'appeal' does seem to be more standard in American English rather than British. (And – somewhat – sorry for going a bit off-topic here.)

  19. John Roth said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

    As a couple of other people have commented, swapping the two prepositional phrases fixes it. It's simply an example of the old "dangling modifier" which causes someone to make the wrong interpretation, come to a stop when they realize it's unlikely to be correct and then have to back up and reanalyze the sentence to get the intended meaning.

    I think expecting an automated parser to handle it when a lot of people can't is a bit optimistic. People, after all, build meaning phrase by phrase, including a good deal of world knowledge in the process of parsing.

  20. Brett said,

    April 8, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    @Gordon Campbell: Transitive "appeal" is completely standard in American English; in contrast, the phrasing C D C prefers "appeal against" is actually impossible in my idiolect.

    [(myl) I (and other Americans) agree, as these Google Books ngram plots suggest (first American books, then British books):

    I suspect that without misclassification of books' origins, the difference would be even closer to categorical. Thus in the NYT since 2000, "appeal the|his|her sentence" is used 86+31+1 = 118 times, while "appeal against the|his|her sentence" is used 0 times.

    Another case study in the curious inverse correlation between prescriptivist ire and curiosity about actual patterns of usage.]

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    I wonder why C D C thinks a post about PP-attachment is the right place for a random usage gripe in the first place.

  22. Eric P Smith said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    I agree all that Mark says about the parsing of the clauses, but I think something else is going on here too. It seems to me that the word “after” is often used, loosely, to link two related events regardless of temporal sequence. I have collected many examples over the years but these few should show what I mean:

    ● Climber found after mountain rescue.
    ● Paul Hartley grabbed a sensational late winner for Hearts after a five-goal thriller at Tynecastle.
    ● A man dies after being shot dead in a confrontation with police in a street in east London.
    ● England win after farcical finish.
    ● Andy Murray has endured a hectic and exhausting few weeks after winning the Montreal Masters last week.

    If "after" is understood in that loose manner, then the present case can be read as "A 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died late Thursday night while crossing Mission Street, and this was in connection with his being struck by a car."

  23. Timothy Rice said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    Here is a similar (although more easily deciphered) example I just found:

    "The set for Mos Espa – hometown of Anakin Skywalker, the protagonist in the blockbuster film series who later becomes Darth Vader – was built at Ong Jmel in southern Tunisia in the 1990s for the filming of Star Wars Episode One – The Phantom Menace."

    Certainly the blockbuster film series did not later become Darth Vader!


  24. Ben Hemmens said,

    April 9, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    If I were writing a style guide, one of my main rules would be "make every sentence have as compact a core as possible" aka "get the junk out of the main clause". E.g.:

    Late Thursday night, a 49-year-old Santa Cruz man died after being struck by a car, while crossing Mission Street.

    I agree with Eric P; after in this case is just journalistically conventional for road fatalities. In ordinary speech, what would we say. He got hit and killed by a car is the first way of putting it that occurs to me. But newspapers have to be careful not to libel the car driver: maybe the pedestrian ran out in front of it – which does happen, but is often found out only when witnesses are interviewed, which may be after the initial reports.

  25. the other Mark P said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 3:11 am

    Today I heard that one of the killers of that soldier in London was going to "appeal his sentence" instead of "appeal against his sentence"!

    Presumably "Cancer support groups" are all idiots too then. Unless you think they support cancer.

  26. Brett said,

    April 10, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    @the other Mark P: That reminded me that in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the post-apocalyptic monks fear that a "fallout shelter" shelters fallouts. (And they know "fallout" must be the name of a monster, since their liturgy calls on God to preserve them from it.)

  27. Chuck said,

    April 11, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

    This headline, in today's Volokh Conspiracy, caught my eye:

    Last night members of the Volokh Conspiracy discussed nude dancing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC

    I was compelled to read the post, if for no other reason than to sort out what and where was the discussion and who and where were the nude dancers.

    Of course, the truth was more mundane than the image: last night, at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, members of the Volokh Conspiracy discussed nude dancing — more precisely, a panel discussion of the extent nude dancing is a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

RSS feed for comments on this post