Garden path of the week

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Parse it if you can:

The right, by contrast, wants to provide those cross subsidies via marriage with single women who have sex (and their children) simply left to suffer pour encourager les autres.

The sentence is from Matthew Yglesias, "Will Obamacare Deliver the Frat Boy Vote to the GOP?", Slate 6/5/2013.

There's a psycholinguistic double or triple whammy here. First, cases where with takes a tenseless quasi-clausal complement (e.g. "with him bringing up the rear" or "with the dogs left to their own devices") are relatively rare. Second, in this example, the reader has to traverse an eight-word subject ("single women who have sex (and their children)" before encountering the evidence ("simply left") that the clausal-complement hypothesis should even be considered. And the sequence "marriage with single women" strongly encourages the idea that "with single women" is a prepositional phrase modifying marriage, rather than an accidental juxtaposition across clause boundaries. And  then the French cliché at the end puts a cherry on top.

[h/t to Johanne Dufour]


  1. Rube said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    Odd. The first time I read it, I got through just fine, and didn't really see the garden path. The second time, the "marriage with single women who have sex" brought me up hard. I would have thought it would be the other way around.

  2. Joseph Simmons said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    Also the word "right" at the beginning could have meant "the right to X" rather than the political right. That's what I expected at first, maybe because I glimpsed the word "marriage" further down the line. It wasn't till "wants to" that I figured out my mistake and had to backtrack to figure out what was going on.

    [(myl) In context, this wouldn't have been a problem:

    The difference is that the left wants to provide those cross-subsidies via the welfare state, which will guarantee access to either birth control or prenatal care according to the woman's preference. The right, by contrast, wants to provide those cross subsidies via marriage with single women who have sex (and their children) simply left to suffer pour encourager les autres.


  3. Sam said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    A single comma before 'with' would have worked wonders. It boggles the mind how professional writers can write sentences like that, and how editors can let it through. There are so many less ambiguous ways to make exactly the same rhetorical point.

    [(myl) This is from "MONEYBOX: A Blog About Business and Economics", so presumably there are no editors involved.]

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:55 am

    Isn't this just a case of a missing comma after "marriage"?

  5. David W said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    I hate it when the right does that!

  6. Chris Waigl said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    In context, the beginning of the sentence would have been a lot clearer ("the political left … the right, in contrast …"). As it is, I was looking at the sentence first with sleep still in my eyes and immediately tried to parse the beginning as the right "to" something — the right to marriage with single women who have sex… with whom? and you marry their children too? or do they also have sex?

    (I think you're right that grouping "single women who have sex" together is nearly irresistible on naive read-through.)

    The second time I got through it fine.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    I was wondering whether the "who have sex" qualifier was actually necessary (esp. since it creates a lack of parallelism, as the 25 year old single men getting the short end of this particular stick are not explicitly specified as having sex). If you edit out the "who have sex" the garden path goes away. But the only examples he gives (although I suspect there may be others out there) of why a 25 year old woman's average health-care costs might be greater than those of a 25-year-old man are pregnancy and contraception, so I guess he's stuck with that. (Of course, the same single men who might hope to pay less for health insurance are generally paying more for car insurance than single women the same age because maleness is associated by the insurers' actuaries with worse claims experience and ditto for life insurance; differential pricing by sex in that sort of context remains uncontroversial in the U.S. as far as I can tell).

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    Well, garden path goes away (or is at least much less tempting) for me. YMMV.

  9. dw said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

    You can marry women and their children?? I guess Justice Scalia's dire predictions were true after all.

  10. un malpaso said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

    It took me a while, but I think I got it. Is "with" (in "…with single women who…") used as a subordinating conjunction akin to "while"?

    [(myl) Sort of, except that its complement is sort of tenseless quasi-clause like the famous "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State".]

    It is a needlessly complex path, and not much garden to see while you're on it.

  11. Bill Walderman said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    The "French clichée" at the end, coming as it does after you've already been confused, is particularly disorienting without italics because the first and second words are spelled the same as English words that don't fit here–for that split second before you realize he's slipped into French you think he's simply lapsed into word salad.

  12. David Morris said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    Among other problems ('right', 'marriage[,] with single women', non-flagged French), on my screen, at least, 'pour' appears at the end of a line, and I read '[are] simply left to suffer pour', which makes no sense, though 'suffer poor' might just. That left a slight pause in my reading and processing rate, so I didn't immediately move on to 'encourager'.

    And I have never encountered 'clichée' in English before. Why feminine? (I have never encountered it in French, either, but seeing as my French extends as far as hello, goodbye, please, sorry, thank you and other cliché(e)s, that is less surprising.)

    [(myl) Actually it should be cliché in both English and French. I wrote "cliche", and later stuck in the accented character without removing the unaccented one.]

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    For me, "single women who have… their children" added a little extra misle. On the other hand, "left" (past participle) in the same sentence as "the right" was just sort of a surrealistic sculpture that enhanced the garden's overall effect.

    Yes, a comma, and some italics pour le français, wouldn't have hurt a bit.

    I wonder whether "with X being Y" is more common in the Wikipedia corpus than in written English in general.

  14. Bfwebster said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Also, the phrase "women who have sex (and their children)" is a bit jarring because it can be read as "women who have sex and have their children".

    This is a spectacularly badly written sentence. In my opinion.

  15. maidhc said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 5:24 am

    I think it would be possible to exclude the set of "single women who don't have sex (and their children)". Yglesias, sometimes I just want to quote Monty Python, "my brain hurts".

  16. ThomasH said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 9:09 am

    Perfectly understandable, even eloquent.

  17. Rod Johnson said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    I couldn't even parse this at all, at first. By the way, I think leaving in the original italics on pour encourager les autres woould have helped.

  18. Steve said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    For me, the biggest challenges to parsing this were the unfamiliar-to-me jargon term "cross-subsidies" and the strange use of "provide… via marriage", as in, the right wants to "provide" cross-subsidies "via marriage". I had to read the article to figure out that what the writer meant was that the right doesn't want to provide any sort of subsidy of any kind to either married or unmarried women (with or without kids, and regardless of whether they are sexually active or not), and, instead, put the burden on women to close the healthcare cost-differential between the genders by getting married (to a man, presumably, although YMMV). (Side note: does this mean the right also wants to retain gendered health care cost discrepancies to encourage men to marry other men, at least in those states where such is legal?)

    I didn't have any trouble parsing the grouping of "marriage with single women who have sex (and their children)", nor did the inclusion of the French phrase at the end throw me off, either. In fact, the French phrase helped point me in the correct direction (but not enough to completely decode it).

    Presumably, the author couched it as the right wanting to provide cross-subsidies via marriage because he wanted it to be structurally parallel to the preceding sentence about how the left wants to provide healthcare cost cross-subsidization). However, at what cost structural parallelism?

  19. Eorrfu said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 12:17 am

    Given the number of typos in his posts Yglesias doesn't have an editor for his blog. Also, what is the use of a Harvard philosophy degree if you can't confuse people once in a while.

  20. Richard said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 4:34 am

    Can anyone tell me why 'the killed student' sounds wrong but 'the murdered student' is OK?


  21. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2013 @ 11:59 am

    Somehow I can't hear "killed" as an adjective participle for anything except viruses in a vaccine.

    [(myl) "Freshly killed", on the other hand…]

  22. Polyspaston said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 7:19 am

    Right wing politicians, by contrast, wish to marry off the angry subsidies, to sexually active single women and their children, who had until now been left to suffer pour encourager les autres.

    At least, that's what I think it says.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    Slightly contra Steve, I think Yglesias' contention is either that the current (complex and opaque) way in which many/most married-couple households in the U.S. get their health care costs paid for and/or some alternative model favored by the "Right" for funding health care costs for married-couple households itself involves a male-to-female cross-subsidy which the same "Right" does not complain about (either because they are better-disguised cross-subsidies or because they provide a financial incentive to do stuff the "Right" favors like getting and staying married). I'm not at all sure that that either version of that contention is empirically accurate (or at least uncontroversially so), but that reading the only way I can make sense of the rhetorical structure of the paragraph.

  24. octopod said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    For me at least, "cross subsidies" does not read naturally either.

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