Ask Language Log: with + nonfinite clause?

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A staff member at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, responsible for providing guidance for journalists on pronunciation, terminology, grammar, and usage, has asked me about "a particular usage of with, which seems to be doing the job of a conjunction." He wonders whether the construction in question is correct English or not. He supplies these attested examples (all already published by ABC news, so one thing we know is that on this matter the usage train has left the station):

  1. "Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote." (found here)
  2. "Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted, with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready to have his identity revealed." (found here)
  3. "President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House, with officials saying the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models." (found here)

My correspondent had some preliminary ideas about the construction that are very perceptive, and he had done some research in the relevant reference books:

The with in these sentences seems to be doing the job of what the Macquarie Dictionary would term a subordinating conjunction. A productive conjunction, too: sentence 1’s with suggests a causative relationship (same-sex marriage could be legal as a result of Parliament's final vote). The with of sentence 2 suggests the two clauses are related in temporal aspect in a way that could be expressed by while). The with of sentence 3 to my eyes seems to be providing additional information related to the main clause.

There seems to be some angst about this use of with as a conjunction. Eric Wirth (in a blog at the Modern Language Association Style Center site) hates it, as does Garner — who views it as "a sloppy construction". Both Garner and other commentators seem to think the use is (a) novel, or (b) particularly relevant to online journalism. This is at odds with Garner’s citations for this "quasi-conjunction" (his term), both of which are both from 90s print media.

Dictionaries I checked for this (Macquarie, Merriam-Webster, OED) don’t seem to have entries for this conjunction sense of with. There is nothing relevant I could find in the AP Stylebook, either. So I suppose my question here is: what is actually going on with this sense of with, and should we be concerned?

The first thing I would note is that by "doing the job of a conjunction" people mean what I mean by "taking a clause as complement". Usage guides traditionally object to this, the classic case being with the preposition like. It's standardly and obviously a preposition in tastes like beef, where it is followed by a noun as prepositions traditionally should be, but usage advisors typically warn against allowing it to be "used as a conjunction". Purists, between 1954 and 1972, deprecated the slogan Winston tastes good like a cigarette should, where the complement is in modern terms a comparative clause, and the traditional view is that it should be introduced by as. (It is said that Walter Cronkite refused to utter the slogan because of its ungrammaticality.) And they are even more disapproving of The room looked like there had been an explosion, where the complement is what The Cambridge Grammar (following Jespersen) calls a content clause (i.e., a finite subordinate clause with nothing missing in its structure).

The traditional prejudice is misguided for two reasons. First, the traditional definition of the category "(subordinating) conjunction" is a long-standing analytical mistake. Meaningless non-head subordinating markers like that and whether, should never have been bundled with robustly meaningful lexical heads like after, although, because, before, if, lest, since, though, while, etc. As was first pointed out in the late 18th century, these are best understood as prepositions that take content-clause complements (I explain this in more detail but without technicalities in "Prepositions as conjunctions, whales as fish").

Words like after are definitely among the prepositions that take content clauses. With is not. So that draws a line between them: with was never bundled into the traditional category of "subordination conjunctions", and so traditional grammarians get edgy if they see it followed by a clause.

But there is a second reason why the purists' edginess about with taking clauses is mistaken. Once we consider nonfinite clause complements, we see that just about every basic preposition that can take an NP complement will also take nonfinite clause complements of the gerund-participial type (where the verb has -ing on the end). We find was congratulated on joining the faculty; tricked into drinking poison; amazed at suddenly being so famous; tired of always being criticized; different in not having been to college; happy despite being tired; fed up with being ridiculed; and so on. You can find some with specialized meanings that can't take a clause for semantic reasons (like aboard or astride), but in all the most basic Preposition + NP phrases you can replace the NP by a gerund-participial clause.

The constructions I'm being asked about involve all three types of nonfinite complement — all nicely illustrated, as it happens, by the ABC examples. With takes either a gerund-participial clause (with Federal Parliament inching closer to a final vote) or a past-participial clause (with Newcastle Local Court told he was ready) or a verbless clause (with this guy in charge).

The puzzle is that anyone should even ask whether this is OK in grammatical terms. Of course it is. How could any native speaker think that familiar sentences like the following might be in some way unfit for use?

With you in Colorado, the house seems empty.

I can't wait to be back at home with my books around me.

He ran desperately down the path between the yew trees, with the slavering hound snapping at his heels.

With the town in ruins, they set about rebuilding the church.

(I'm not saying that all of these represent exactly the kind of use my correspondent was worried about; they don't. They illustrate various different kinds of modification. They point is merely that no one could doubt the existence of grammatical modifier phrases consisting of with plus a nonfinite or verbless clause.)

The Cambridge Grammar covers the construction at page 1267, citing examples like With the children so sick, we weren't able to get much work done. Why would Wirth call the construction "a regrettable shortcut"? Shortcut to where? (And aren't shortcuts good, and fuel-efficient?)

It is true that the construction my correspondent is worried about underspecifies the semantic relation holding between the nonfinite subordinate clause and the matrix clause. Indeed, the relation generally doesn't really involve any semantic subordination at all, so the meaning contributed by with is often no more than the coordinator and would contribute. In fact all three of the attested cases from ABC News could be paraphrased paratactically, i.e. in two separate sentences, exactly as would be done in a language like Pirahã that doesn't use subordination:

  1. Same-sex marriage could be legal by the end of the day. Federal Parliament is inching closer to a final vote.
  2. Peter Creigh has asked for a non-publication order on his name to be lifted. Newcastle Local Court has been told he is ready to have his identity revealed.
  3. President Donald Trump introduced the plan alongside two Republican senators in the White House. Officials say the plan was based in part on the Australian and Canadian immigration models.

But there's something rather flat-footed about just presenting two short declaratives one after another like that. Kids in elementary school are often taught not to do that. Instead of We went to the zoo. We saw penguins, they are told to try something like We went to the zoo, where we saw penguins.

Well, perhaps instead of Things are getting busy at home. Christmas is so close, they should try something like Things are getting busy at home, with Christmas so close.

I am certainly surprised that the an editor at a major news corporation should be worried that such a construction might be not just no improvement but actually unacceptable. It's a measure of the damage prescriptive usage manuals do as they shake people's confidence in their ability to link sentences in the way they think is best. Even educated people who work with language every day.

Bottom line: It's a clearly grammatical and acceptable construction. Use it if you like it. Don't let the prescriptive usage guides grind you down.

Thanks to Brett Reynolds for a useful correction. And to Bob Ladd for reminding me that the brand that tastes good like a cigarette should was Winston, not Marlborough. We non-smokers recall the ads in question only dimly from long, long ago.

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