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….
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:
- Go to [sponsor]
- click on that little radio icon,
- type in R-I-S-K
- 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!
This entry was posted on September 6, 2012 at 11:31 pm and is filed under Attachment ambiguity, Syntax. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.