kitchen table math, the sequel: my other blog

Sunday, March 4, 2012

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FedUpMom said...

Catherine, I take issue with your description of the Groucho joke as a "misplaced modifier". There's nothing wrong with the statement "I shot an elephant in my pajamas", and anyone hearing it will understand it to mean that the speaker was in his pajamas. That's why the joke works. It's a surprise to hear that the elephant was wearing the pajamas.

I take exception to your "correction" of the sentence to "Wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant." This is not an improvement. It's a very weak sentence that puts the least important part of the sentence first.

Ambiguity is an invariable part of natural language. It isn't wrong; it's inevitable.

An example used by linguists is "I saw a man with a telescope". Is the speaker looking through a telescope to see the man, or is the man who was seen holding a telescope in his hand?

FedUpMom said...

Okay, I turned this into a blog post:

Bad Advice From English Teachers

Katharine Beals said...

It's true that modifiers are generally placed next to the things they modify. But sometimes it's the entire sentence that is being modified, in which case the modifier can go at the beginning or at the end.

In the ordinary interpretation of "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" (before the "How he got there, I don't know" clarification), "In my pajamas" is a sentential modifier. That is, it most obviously characterizes the circumstances of the elephant shooting. In the bizarre interpretation (which becomes obvious only after the clarification), "in my pajamas" is a modifier of object noun "elephant." As such, it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence. Thus, "In my pajamas, I shot an elephant." is unambiguous.

The tradeoff is between stylistic concerns (e.g. FedupMom's) and concerns about clarity. Depending on the overall context, sentential modifiers placed at the ends of sentences can be misinterpreted as verb phrase or object noun modifiers, which both tend to go at the ends of verb phrases. Since the end of a verb phrase is often also the end of the main sentence, you often can't tell what an end-of-sentence modifier is modifying from word order alone.

With Dick Cavett, I discussed sex. (unambiguous)
I discussed sex with Dick Cavett. (ambiguous; example from Steven Pinker).

Glen said...

You can eliminate some ambiguity in natural language by rephrasing a bit:

One morning, while still in my pajamas, I shot an elephant.

Trimming the low-hanging fruit is a good idea, but trying too hard to eliminate all ambiguity turns prose into legalese.

Ambiguity in language is a feature, not a bug, as long as the intended meaning is communicated. It lets you convey more information with fewer words, effectively increasing your bandwidth.

When speaking, the better you know your interlocutor, the more ambiguous your words can be, and usually are, without misunderstanding. If you go too far, a slight furrowing of the listener's brow tells you to back up and elaborate a bit. It's quick, efficient, and extremely sophisticated as a communications protocol.

When writing, though, you have to be more explicit, because you don't have the real-time feedback and may not know the reader. You have to decide how much to rely on the reader and how much to elaborate preemptively.

To make this easier, a lot of writing conventions have evolved to reduce the ambiguity between parties who don't know each other but who follow the same conventions. That's why these conventions are emphasized on the SAT.

The "dangling modifier" concept, for example, is just a violation of a writing convention that most careful writers in English have agreed to follow. It is not a violation of logic, nor of native English grammar, which you can tell, because native speakers of Standard (any standard) English so often "violate" this convention in speech, and no one notices.

The trick in writing is not to follow all the "rules," but to make the choices and tradeoffs that produce the desired effects in the reader. Of course, students can't make the best choices until they become thoroughly familiar with the rules.

FedUpMom said...

My point is that it's not reasonable to tell students that clauses have to placed next door to the thing they modify. It just ain't so! Clauses are routinely placed at a distance from the words they modify and nobody even notices. It's a natural part of the language. Here's an example I posted on my other blog:


I saw the planet with my telescope.


Does that sentence bother you? Do you have the urge to put a red pencil through it and tell me that it should have been "With my telescope, I saw the planet?" I doubt it very much. But it's the exact same structure as "I saw an elephant in my pajamas."

In the case of transitive verbs, it's actually not possible to put the clause next to the word it modifies. For instance, this sentence works in English:


I love you with all my heart.


But you can't say:


(NOT) I with all my heart love you.

(NOT) I love with all my heart you.


FedUpMom said...

I think there's also a distinction here between written and spoken English. I would accept "Wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant" if it were written down, but I can't imagine anyone saying it. It sounds really stilted and odd.

Katharine Beals said...

"It just ain't so! "

Actually, it generally *is* so.

In your examples,

"with my telescope" modifies the verb phrase "saw the planet."

"with all my heart" modifies the verb phrase "love you."

In both cases, the modifier goes right next to the phrase it modifies. (This is more evident if you're familiar with the syntax tree structures).

Returning to "sex with Dick Cavet", there are cases where a modifier can be separated from what it modifies. This occurs in:
"With Dick Cavet, I discussed sex."

This slightly awkward sentence is an example of modifier preposing. In some cases (and this is an example where the rules of syntax interact with rules of style), a long-enough modifier can comfortably be moved to the front of a sentence.

FedUpMom said...

I am familiar with syntax trees; I wrote a computer program that searches them, which linguists use every day.

The point is, Catherine should reject "I saw the planet with my telescope", if she truly wants to reject all elephant-and-pajamas type constructions. If she rejects "I shot an elephant in my pajamas", and prefers "Wearing pajamas, I shot an elephant", then she should also reject "I saw the planet with my telescope" (what the planet was doing with my telescope I'll never know!) and prefer "With my telescope, I saw the planet". But I doubt she does, because there's really nothing wrong with "I saw the planet with my telescope".

Catherine Johnson said...

It's a very weak sentence that puts the least important part of the sentence first.

Hey FedUp - I left a comment at your blog (& at 'my other blog') -- I should probably put this up as a post because it's worth knowing.

I try to put the most important part of my sentences last.

I didn't **know** that I do that until I started teaching composition and discovered that putting the most important part last is standard (and fits with reader expectations).

This morning I talked to my friend R about it, and she said she was taught in law school always to put the most important word or words last:

He is guilty!

Apparently linguists call this "end-focus."

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - I'm still trying to figure out 'sentence modifiers.'

Everyone - traditional grammar books (and some non-traditional grammar books, i.e. Kolln) tell you that adverbs (and "adverbials") are moveable but adjectives (& "adjectivals") are not.

Generally speaking, I find that to be true of the texts I read AND of the way I write. I follow an unconscious rule that I can put adverbials just about anywhere, but adjectives have to be more or less affixed to the noun or noun phrase they modify.

What's interesting to me is that I think it's possible "adjectivals" are becoming 'unstuck' as well.

If Katharine's around, she'll have thoughts about that.

Catherine Johnson said...

My point is that it's not reasonable to tell students that clauses have to placed next door to the thing they modify. It just ain't so! Clauses are routinely placed at a distance from the words they modify and nobody even notices.

Fed Up - are you thinking of 'adverbial' clauses as well as 'adjectivals'? (I use the quotation marks because god-only-knows what I'm supposed to be calling these things these days...)

Adverbial clauses go all over the place.

Sentential modifiers (apparently) can go anywhere; I still don't understand what they are, though I'm sure I use them all the time.

But I would be stunned to find professional writers putting adjective clauses anywhere in the text with any degree of frequency.

I don't do it, and none of the authors I read do it, either.

These days, I do see dangling participles pretty often -- but even there, I'll see maybe one a day.

I don't see dozens of adjectival clauses positioned words away from the noun or noun phrase they modify.

FedUpMom said...

Hmm ... I may have misstated the point I'm trying to make. I'll try again.

I don't think people routinely put adjectival phrases anywhere; I think we follow a grammar about what goes where.

However, our grammar does not include the rule you propose in your post about the Groucho joke.

Your proposed rule is that we should disallow "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" and instead substitute "Wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant", on the grounds that the second sentence puts the adjectival clause next door to the word it modifies.

My point is that we routinely use the "elephant in my pajamas" syntax, and it's no problem at all. I give as an example "I saw the planet with my telescope", which has the same structure as "I shot an elephant in my pajamas."

Nobody objects to "I saw the planet with my telescope" on the grounds that the planet didn't have my telescope. That's because there's nothing wrong with this sentence, any more than there was anything wrong with "I shot an elephant in my pajamas."

Catherine Johnson said...

I saw the planet with my telescope.

I should read threads before commenting!

(Major eyestrain reading online these days)

Ok, I think this is where the disagreement lies.

I call the phrase "with my telescope" an 'adverbial phrase." It modifies "saw," not "I."

btw, the reason I call "with my telescope" an adverbial is simply that the grammar books I've been reading call it an adverbial; I find the concept of adverbial modifiers confusing (most likely because I can't distinguish them from sentence modifiers).

Adverbs go all over the place.

I strongly disagree.

I disagree strongly.

I disagree with you strongly.

Strongly, I disagree. (I wouldn't say that, but I would say "Merrily we roll along.)

Adjectives stick to the nouns they modify.

Black cat


The cat was running black.


Black the cat was running.

One other thing: I don't know what real linguists think about adjectives vs. adverbs. As far as I can tell, linguists still see a distinction, but the fact is: I don't know.

However, at some level it doesn't matter to me what linguists believe, because I am a writer myself - and a very good reader.

I know what rules I follow, and I have a fairly good idea what rules other writers follow.

At some level, this discussion reminds me of the arguments over ebonics.

My students, generally speaking, don't know what misplaced modifier is.

They are writing papers for people who do.

FedUpMom said...

But my whole point is that there is NO MISPLACED MODIFIER in "I shot an elephant in my pajamas." It's a perfectly reasonable sentence, following a structure that everybody uses all the time.

FedUpMom said...

Sainted Linguist Husband proposes:

"I never wondered about that as a child."

Do you accept that sentence, or do you think we need to move "as a child" to the beginning of the sentence, so it can modify "I"?

FedUpMom said...

For contrast, here's an example of what I would consider a misplaced modifier. Several years ago, I heard a radio ad for an amusement park. The slogan was "Try XYZ amusement park -- it just isn't for kids any more!"

Now THERE'S a seriously misplaced modifier. They wanted to say the park would be enjoyable for adults as well as kids, but they wound up implying that they wouldn't allow kids in at all.

Of course, they should have said "it isn't just for kids any more." There's a world of difference.

Catherine Johnson said...

"I never wondered about that as a child."

The books tell me that "as a child" is an adverb telling time (but I wonder whether Katharine would call it a sentence modifier.)

Adverbs move around.

Does your husband make a distinction between adverbs and adjectives? (I'm asking --- ! I've dipped into linguistics some, and I **think** I still see that distinction being made.)

In any event, regardless of how linguists understand these distinctions (and so far I usually find linguistic accounts much clearer than traditional grammars) it is certainly a distinction that I know unconsciously as part of my unconsciously grammatical knowledge.

It's not a question of whether I 'accept' sentences as correct or incorrect.

It's a question of 'recognition.'

Do I recognize "I never wondered about that as a child" as correct?

Yes, I do.

Do I recognize "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" as correct ----- well, actually, not so much.

I get the meaning; I don't for one second think the elephant is wearing pajamas.

But the sentence 'hits me funny,' and I think that's probably part of the fun. When Groucho says "How he got in my pajamas, I don't know' I think I probably experience 'recognition humor.'

Catherine Johnson said...

Try XYZ amusement park -- it just isn't for kids any more!

Oh that's funny.

I have to say, though, that I would instantly understand the real meaning of this sentence.

Katharine Beals said...

Yes, "as a child" is a sentence mnodifier, so whether it's at the beginning or the end of the sentence, it is right next to the thing it modifies.