Modifier targeting: the awkward cusp between error and creativity

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According to the BBC News for US & Canada website today, "The Pentagon is set to announce that the ban on gay people openly serving in [the] US military is to end"; and my colleague Heinz Giegerich did a double-take. He notes with puzzlement that he understood it despite the fact that the adverb is clearly in the wrong place. It's not open service that is banned by the military; it's open gayness. How can we possibly understand an adverb positioned as a premodifier of the verb serve when it ought to be positioned before the adjective gay?

Heinz notes that it must have something to do with our familiarity with the phrase openly gay, which is almost lexicalized (though not quite, I would say). And he also notes that the phrase a sense of false security exhibits an analogous oddness. It is often encountered (341,000 Google hits) with the intended meaning a false sense of security (4.6 million Google hits). If you sensed that the security was false you'd be on your guard; but the intent is to refer to a false sense of being fully secure.

It appears that sometimes, under conditions that are by no means clear, we can interpret a modifier (typically an adjective or adverb) as modifying an entirely different constituent from the one that it's syntactically attached or adjacent to.

But not always, of course. Compare these three examples:

  1. The ban on gay people openly serving in the military is to end.
  2. The ban on unlucky people cruelly kicking their cats is to end.
  3. The ban on stupid people thoroughly cleaning their homes is to end.

I venture to predict that nobody will find they can understand (2) as being about people with cruelly bad luck rather than people who kick cats cruelly; and no one will find that they understand (3) as being about thorough stupidity rather than thorough cleaning.

The place in the literature where there is something to connect Heinz's observation to is The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, page 558 (paragraph (h) of subsection 4.1), under the heading of hypallage (also known under the classical rhetorical term "transferred epithet").

When we say that some men engaged in a drunken brawl, we don't mean that the brawl was drunken (how could it be? who would pay for its drinks?), we mean that it involved drunken men.

If I say that I refused to answer some audience member's insane questions, I don't really mean that the questions were insane (mental illness cannot literally afflict a question), I mean to cast doubt on whether the audience member's intellectual staircase goes all the way to the top.

When we say a tired mother running a birthday party for seven-year-old boys withdrew to her kitchen to have a quiet cup of tea, we don't really intend to classify the cup as the quiet kind (all cups are pretty quiet as a rule); we mean… Well, what do we mean exactly? Was it the kitchen that was quiet? Or the mother? Or just the situation, the precious five minutes of calm while the kitchen door was closed and the yelling kids had stopped running around screaming and hitting each other and were at last watching a cartoon on the TV in the family room?

A particularly nice example given in The Cambridge Grammar is It's your own stupid fault. By your fault we mean your responsibility or deservingness of blame, and there is no such thing as stupid responsibility. People are stupid, responsibility isn't. But stupid can't be stuck in to modify the pronoun you, partly because attributive adjectives are rare with pronouns anyway (we do have phrases like lucky you, but not many of them), and more importantly because in this case you is locked up in the genitive case as the determiner of the NP and is followed by the grammaticized attributive adjective own. We can't say *stupid your own fault because the genitive forms of pronouns absolutely cannot take attributive modifiers (even with lucky: although the story of lucky Pierre can be called [lucky Pierre]'s story, if you're the lucky one we can't call the story *[lucky you]r story).

So what seems to happen is that we stick stupid before the head noun fault because that's the nearest place it will syntactically fit, and understand it as modifying the addressee because that's the nearest reassignment that will make it intelligible. That's the vague intuition I have, anyway.

Something relatable to all this may be going on with gay people openly serving in the military. You might call it an error, but for an error it's curiously close to being able to pass as correct and be unproblematically understood. You might try to relate it to hypallageic uses of adjectives, but it isn't quite the same. It's on that awkward cusp between error and creativity.

[Instead of rushing to comment, sit down and have a quiet cup of tea. Comments are closed. But thanks to Stuart Martin for encouraging me to check the counts of the two versions of the phrase on Google, as I have now done in the revised text above.]

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