A flicker of syntactic disquiet

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A "dangling modifier" can follow the intended understood subject in a sentence and yet still dangle. That is (let me rephrase, since the traditional "dangling" metaphor isn't very helpful): a subjectless non-finite clause in a phrase functioning as an adjunct may be hard to associate with a suitable target of predication even though the intended one is a subject noun phrase occurring earlier in the same sentence. Here is an example, from a short piece about comedian Russell Brand and singer Katy Perry that appeared in the UK newspaper Metro:

Russell Brand says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school Englishness' after showering them with chocolates.

In my judgment (your mileage may differ), the clause showering them with chocolates occasions a brief moment of involuntary surprise and puzzlement. One does a very brief double-take and then searches back for the right noun phrase to be understood as the one who does the showering.

The judgment is subtle. Some will say that they don't see any unacceptability at all, and that's fine for them; but I'm not interested in the reactions of those who managed to see instantly what the right interpretation was. I'm interested in the structural properties that trigger the slight flicker of syntactic disquiet for those that experience it.

Here's my reconstruction of a fictional conscious process of trying to understand the sentence (it is not, of course, intended to be a serious proposal about what goes on psycholinguistically; I have no idea what goes on psycholinguistically).

The main clause has Russell Brand as subject. Let's refer to him from now on as B. The verb is says, which has a content clause as internal complement. Content clauses are finite, so they have subjects, so we go immediately into processing a second subject: Katy Perry's God-fearing parents, call them P. There is also a direct object, his 'old fashioned Englishness'. I'll refer back to that as E.

When you encounter the adjunct after showering them with chocolates, you need to plug in a target of predication (an understood subject), and there are three noun phrases (NPs) competing for the privilege. The nearest and most recent was E, but it makes no sense for old-fashioned Englishness to shower people with chocolates; we are looking for an animate and probably human NP.

The subject of the containing clause is P, but the pronoun them provides a syntactic reason why that is not sensible: not only does it make no sense for Katy's parents to showering themselves with chocolates (they are God-fearing, after all), them is not a reflexive pronoun, so it would be ungrammatical as well. (And without an antecedent in the sentence the pronoun would have no antecedent at all, which would make it baffling — this is the first sentence of an article.

We therefore move back to the main clause subject B; but now we hit another problem. There is no way to construe the adjunct as modifying the main clause, the clause of which B is the subject. The phrase after showering them with chocolates is a temporal adjunct: it specifies that some event happens later than another: the showering with chocolates happens at an earlier time t1, and then some other event happens afterward, at a time t2. What is that later event? The point is that it is not B's speech act.

The adjunct after showering them with chocolates is not specifying that the chocolate-showering was at t1 and the act of B's saying that P loved E was later at t2 — though that is in fact true (B didn't tell his story to the reporter until P had shown approval of him). The adjunct is specifying that the signs of loving E came after the blizzard of chocolate gifts. It is an adjunct that belongs entirely to the content clause, the one that has loved as its verb.

So the subjectless non-finite clause can't be interpreted with a target of predication located within the clause where its containing PP is a modifier; and if it is interpreted with the main clause subject as its target, it is being interpreted as applying to an NP that is not in the clause where it functions as a modifier.

That is what I assume gave me my twinge of syntactic unease. It was very brief, and naturally I soon decided that the sentence meant this (and note, this means what I think was meant but it isnot what got published):

Russell Brand says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school Englishness' after he showered them with chocolates.

Here I've popped a pronoun in, and made the showered clause finite. Hooking up pronouns to antecedents works differently from hooking up subjectless clauses that function as adjuncts (or complements within adjuncts, as with a gerund-participial complement of a preposition like after). It's much easier. Any NP in the vicinity will do. It can be in an earlier sentence (John was unhappy. It took him hours to get to sleep). If it's in the same sentence it can come later (When he woke up, John was feeling much better). Subjectless non-finite clauses are different. There are — to some degree that is very hard to specify — structural conditions governing where you look in the first instance to find a "controller" or target of predication. And that is what gives rise to the phenomenon that is traditionally known as dangling.


  1. Mark P said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    I experienced exactly that moment of puzzlement, and did essentially what you describe. I went back through the sentence until I found a construction that made sense. I have been called down for dangling things that I thought were OK, but I don't like a sentence that makes me do too much of the writer's work.

  2. Paul Clapham said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    I eventually decided that it was Russell Brand and Katy Perry who had been showered with chocolates. That would imply that there was a fairly close relationship between the two, but I didn't have any context to tell whether that was the case or not.

  3. Dan Milton said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    Since you didn't give a link, I googled "Russell Brand chocolates". The first hit was to the article in question, the fuller text of which confirms your interpretation.
    The other hits show that Mr. Brand has an amazing variety of other uses for chocolate, quite unsuitable for a God-fearing couple.

  4. Andrew Clegg said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    I too had that moment of uncertainty, but your punchline took me by surprise a bit. After the flicker, I read it as

    Russell Brand says
     ( Katy Perry's God-fearing parents
      ( ( loved his 'old school Englishness' )
        ( showering them with chocolates. ) ) )

    with "them" referring to Brand and Perry, and the implicit subject of the "showering" clause being the parents.

    I'm not sure which interpretation is more of a leap though. Mine has an assumed pairing of singular referents for a plural pronoun, which is also a bit weird.

  5. hsgudnason said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    I had Paul Clapham's reaction too, initially at least, and assumed that the parents had showered Brand/Perry. That raised too many other questions, though, and took the sentence nowhere. I finally thought it through one more time and came up with what's apparently the correct meaning.

    Those reinterpretations took at most a few seconds, but if I'd encountered the sentence in the article rather than on this blog I would have probably had no desire to read further.

  6. mgh said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    I don't think there is any way for this sentence to make sense, which I assume is part of its old-school Englishness.

    I ultimately interpreted it as the parents showering the couple with chocolates, as I was trying to force some relevant narrative out of it ("What made you think they loved you?" "Because they showered us with chocolates!")

    If I had known that showering parents in chocolate was an old-school English trait, then, of course, I would have read it differently.

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    I read the sentence as GP did. What gave me more than a twinge of unease, though, was trying to make a connection between the chocolate shower and either fear of God or Englishness of any school.

    If they were sweets-loving parents, or had been showered with something more English (in my association) than chocolates, or perhaps if B were Swiss, or Dutch, or anything more chocolate-associated … as it stands, both E and G-f come across as non sequiturs.

  8. Stephen Jones said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    We can just move the phrase back and the sentence is clear, though still clumsy:
    Russell Brand, after showering them with chocolates, says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school Englishness' .

    The way I would express it is that the target needs to be salient, and if the adjunct is moved far enough away from its target, then the target loses its salience. I don't think we can make rules about this, but rather have to go over each example one by one.

    And quite off topic but another case of a dangling modifier came up in the endless discussions with peevologists I seem to have on the Guardian blog.

    One of them insisted that
    "Prior to becoming an MP, observers had identified the councillor as a high-flyer…"
    was the notorious "dangling participle": the "observers" didn't "become an MP".

    I insisted the sentence was a perfectly correct sentence that breaks no rule of English syntax whatsoever. The observers can't have become an MP because of the number mismatch. As 'observers' can't be the target of the phrase then the reader looks for the next possible one which is 'councillor'. If the sentence was "Prior to becoming MPs, observers had identified the councillors as high-fliers" , then it would need rewriting.

    But I am finding myself having to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, and would like some feedback as to whether my intuition is correct or not.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I think the interpretation of the parents showering the couple requires knowing that Brand and Perry are a couple, which the sentence does not indicate. Me, who's never heard of Brand and Perry, I only see "them" as able to apply to the parents. There's nothing within the sentence that unites Brand and Perry together in anyway that could be referred to as "them". (And it was noted this is the first sentence of the article, so nothing before that either.)

    Stephen Jones, your correction doesn't work because then it says that he said it after showering them with chocolates, not that they loved him after he showered them with chocolates.

  10. Stephen Jones said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    You're correct that my version makes the causal connection between their loving him and his showering them with chocolates less clear than in Geoff's corrected version, but even in Geoff's version the ambiguity is there.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    I had the same reaction as GP, and came to the same conclusion. Part of my disquiet, I think, is that "after he showered them" seems simpler and more natural than "after showering them," arousing a suspicion that the writer must have meant something different.

  12. Army1987 said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    I interpreted it as GKP too, but I didn't even notice E during my search for potential subjects of "showering".

    (In my native language, the subject of non-finite clauses is (almost) always the subject of the governing clause, and I have a subconscious propensity to extend this to English. Of course, the "showering" clause is governed by the "loved" clause rather than by the "says" clause, so at first I only saw P as the subject. The result didn't make sense (it didn't occur to me that "they" might refer to Brand and Perry), so I switched my interpretation as the "showering" clause being governed by the "says" clause: Brand showered Perry's parents with chocolates and after that he said they loved his Englishness. Plausible but weird. After a while I decided it meant what GKP says.)

  13. Robert said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    The sentence only makes sense if it's being assumed that Brand's parents consider their daughter's partner showering them with chocolates to be both a sign of old-fashioned Englishness, and endearing, which is not a conventional assumption to make.

    Even with a less odd assumed sign, 'after taking them to a cricket match' perhaps, the sentence would still jar, but not quite so badly – it's easier to connect cricket to Englishness than chocolate.

  14. Daniel said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    I understood this slightly differently. For me, the full sentence would be
    "Russell Brand says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved [the] 'old school Englishness' [he exhibited] after showering them with chocolates."
    So in fact, in my interpretation, "after showering them with chocolates" does indeed describe B, but it does not follow the verb "loved" temporally, but the missing verb of which "'old school Englishness'" is a direct object in a subordinate clause. The final part of the sentence, "after showering them with chocolates", is also in that subordinate clause.

  15. Rubrick said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    I suffered more than a brief double-take; it actually took me quite a while to arrive at an interpretation that made any sense. The pull of "God-fearing parents" as those doing the "showering"— with the nonsensical "Englishness" as the recipent thereof— was so strong that my brain didn't want to accept alternatives.

    Suppose the sentence had been "Russell Brand says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school English family' after showering them with chocolates." I think that in this case virtually every reader would consider it to mean that Katy's parents showered Russell's family with chocolates, and not notice any ambiguity at all.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    Can anybody enlighten me on why a writer would resist using a construction like "after he showered them" in place of "after showering them"? Does the extra "he" seem, cognitively, too expensive?

  17. Mark said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    Several takes required, but your conclusion must be right. Those of us who are sated with Russell Brand in the UK can imagine him saying something like: Her God-fearing parents loved my Englishness, after showering them with chocolates. Still unclear, but clearer than when reported by a third person.

  18. Rick S said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    I went through the same process as GKP and arrived at the same conclusion.

    But I wonder if I would have stumbled at all if the sentence had been "After showering them with chocolates, Russell Brand says, Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school Englishness'." It still has the same flaw and would read better with a finite clause, but the proximity to 'Russell Brand" makes it go down easier.

  19. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    Ellen K:

    The syntax in this sentence of yours is enchanting:

    Me, who's never heard of Brand and Perry, I only see "them" as able to apply to the parents.

    (Not completely off-topic, perhaps.)

    I found GKP's original sentence quite slippery. Even if his strict analysis uncovers just one fully justified interpretation, in practice the speaker might easily have intended something else.

  20. James D said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    Perhaps the problem is an understood possessive pronoun: "after his showering them with chocolates" would be unambiguous, albeit overly pedantic and formal.

  21. montgomery said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    Seriously, can anyone read this sentence and not stumble over it?

    I realize that Geoff asked those who were not surprised by this sentence to avoid commenting, but since I don't think anyone listens to that sort of request, I think it's notable that every single person who has written in so far was flummoxed by it. I was seriously annoyed; what terrible writing!

  22. Mark F. said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

    It looks like this sentence causes more than a flicker of disquiet for a lot of people, since they can't even agree on what it's supposed to mean. My tentative interpretation was the one that Geoff rejects decisively and at some length.

  23. slobone said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    Those of you who think it was the parents who showered Brand and Perry need to find an antecedent for "he." Unless there's a grammatical mistake, it can only be Brand who did the showering. Although it's certainly clumsy, and violates the rule that a reader should never have to re-read a sentence just to figure out what the heck you meant….

  24. Acilius said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    @Slobone: I think you must have misread something- there's no "he" in the sentence.

  25. Andrew Clegg said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    Ellen K.: "I think the interpretation of the parents showering the couple requires knowing that Brand and Perry are a couple, which the sentence does not indicate."

    Actually, having heard of both celebs individually, I read the sentence and immediately thought "oh wait, are they together now, then?"

  26. language hat said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    Some will say that they don't see any unacceptability at all

    I find that an odd assumption. It may be that some will say that (after all, there seem to be people to defend just about any weird construction), but the sentence, if Geoff's interpretation is correct, seems to me completely unacceptable, and this thread appears to bear me out. If B is the intended subject, only "after he showered them" would produce a grammatical sentence. The sentence as printed is not just disquieting, it is wrong.

    [I'm very pleased to see this level of support for my initial reaction. In the past I've always taken serious flak from people saying they can't see what I'm grumbling about or they saw the correct interpretation instantly or whatever. With this one, people seem to agree that the example is bad. In fact their opinions are so long that I'm inclined to think they regard it as blocked syntactically; and that is exactly what I'm not sure about with dangling modifier examples. My mind remains open on the question, but I have been thinking for some time that the frequency with which dangling modifier examples are written and published is so high that it is inconceivable that they are blocked by some well-ingrained syntactic principle that we all subconsciously know. —GKP]

  27. Peter Taylor said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    I'm not entirely convinced that there's any straightforward X for which "Russell Brand says Katy Perry's God-fearing parents loved his 'old school Englishness' after X" really works in the sense of X causing P to love E. The construct seems to me to require "loved" to be a simple past rather than an imperfect, but that doesn't work semantically. In addition to replacing "showering" with a verb form which establishes chronological position I'd like to insert "said that they" before "loved".

  28. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 18, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

    When I googled "Russell Brand chocolates" just now, the wording of the report had been changed to make it grammatical. That's to say, it now reads "after he showered them".

    [Aha! So at least we know for sure that my reading of the semantics accords with that of the original author and/or editor. Brand gave the chocolates. —GKP]

  29. Old Grumpy said,

    December 19, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    Of course Brand gave the chocolates! Or it might have been Katy. But it certainly wasn't the parents. This is reported speech of what Brand said. How can he have meant "Brand and Katy" as "them" when he was speaking?

  30. Nathan Myers said,

    December 21, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    I imagined for a while that Russell Brand must be a vendor of fancy "Old English style" chocolates, whatever that might mean. I wondered, too, momentarily, if "his" should have been capitalized.

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