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I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” […] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad […]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[…] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ […]”

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.

*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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