Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Found in the Wild

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2012

On the August 30 episode of Kevin Allison’s Risk! podcast, I heard two examples of syntactic phenomena that I’ve written about before, that supposedly don’t occur much in actual written or spoken English. Not to say that they never happen, but they’re rare enough to have caught my attention.

As Allison says during each episode, Risk! is the podcast where “people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share.” It’s labeled “Explicit” on iTunes, and I should note that they don’t mean explicit in the way that a good mathematical proof or instruction manual should be. They mean sexually explicit, and some of the episodes truly are. Allison himself did a story spanning three episodes called “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp,” which I didn’t care to listen to past the middle of the Part 2. But if you want to hear a depressing yet hilarious story featuring not only sex, but also excrement and vomit, there was this other episode that’s got to be from sometime in August, but I can’t seem to find it again. Other stories are completely family-friendly, like the one from a couple of years ago involving a standardized test and a squirrel. Sometimes I’ll take a risk (as Allison likes to recommend) and listen to the latest episode in the car while Doug and Adam are with me, and hope it’ll be one of the clean episodes like that one. Sometimes it is.

Anyway, like many podcasts, Risk! has sponsors, which Allison promotes wholeheartedly. I liked when he talked up one sponsor, an online sexual accessories store, in a gravelly, old-tar sailor’s voice, telling us, “Yer gonna buy yer lube an’ yer condoms anyway, so ye might as well get ‘em from….” In recent episodes, the sponsor hasn’t been nearly as interesting: an online purveyor of postage. But Allison gushes over it gamely, and on the August 30 episode, he said

There’s a lot more mailing that should have been being done before that is being done now….

A nice example of a past perfect progressive passive, a kind of verb cluster that I’ve also written about in passing in this post, and as the main topic in this Visual Thesaurus column.

Shortly after that utterance, Allison gave his usual spiel on how to take advantage of a special offer on that website, and make sure that his show got credit for referring you:

So go to [sponsor] before you do anything else, click on that little radio microphone at the top of the home page, type in R-I-S-K, and get going.

So we have four main clauses, coordinated:

  1. Go to [sponsor]
  2. click on that little radio icon,
  3. type in R-I-S-K
  4. get going

Then there’s one subordinate clause: before you do anything else. The way Allison says it, there’s no pause between the first main clause and this subordinate clause, and there is a pause between anything else and click. So it sounds like the before clause modifies Go to [sponsor]. That could work, if he truly means for me to visit this website. On the other hand, the utterance makes more sense if the before clause is modifying click on that little radio icon. If you click the radio icon before you do anything else on that website, Risk! gets the credit.

In short, we have a phrase that could look backwards to modify something, or forwards to modify something. It’s a forward/backward attachment ambiguity, better known (to some at least) as a squinting modifier! Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has to say about squinting modifiers:

[T]he squinting modifier is more of a theoretical possibility — with, it must be admitted, a catchy title — than a real problem.

Maybe so, but there it is, in the wild!

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5 Responses to “Found in the Wild”

  1. Glen said

    “A nice example of a past perfect progressive passive…” I get the progressive and passive parts, but can you explain why it’s past perfect? I would have thought it was present perfect. I think the ‘should’ is throwing me off.

    • Neal said

      Right, it’s the should. Without the modal, a past perfect progressive passive would be something like had been being done. With modals, though, may have done, etc. is called present perfect, and might have done, past perfect. Unless, of course, the modal is will or shall, in which case we get will/shall have done, called the future perfect, and would/should have done, which are still called past perfect instead of … future past perfect? The names are inconsistently applied, and after absorbing some of CGEL’s view, I’m inclined to just say should have been being done is a simple past tense of the verb shall. All the rest is just the complement to shall, which in this case is a perfect form: have followed by a past participle.

  2. For your RISK example, it seemed clear to me that the modifier “before you do anything else” was meant to modify the whole process, which begins with going to the website. Of course it would have been more clear if he started the sentence with “Before…” He does want you to go to the sponsor website so RISK gets credit and clicking & typing are the ways to get the credit.

    It’s a basic marketing call to action with the emphasis on immediacy (do it now before inertia sets in and you forget about it). The typing of RISK in the referral box is what gives credit, so it doesn’t matter if you went to the website and did something else first.

    If he meant the “before you do” modifier to modify “click on…”, all he would need is to add the word “and.” Go to the website, AND before you do anything else, click, type, etc.

    • Neal said

      I disagree. If your analysis were right, he’d say “before you do anything else” for his other sponsors too, but he only does it for this one. I suspect the website is set up such that if you don’t type in the offer code right away, there’s no further opportunity to do it once you’re one or two clicks away from the home page.

  3. [...] I can cut it is that I was listening to the most recent episode of Risk (the podcast that had that real-life example of a squinting ambiguity). The host Kevin Allison was telling a story about a time when he was obsessively trying to [...]

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