Sunday, July 24, 2011

Not so clearly

In a post on Language Log, Geoff Pullum looks at what he calls a misplaced adverb.
According to the BBC News for US & Canada website today, "The Pentagon is set to announce that the ban on gay people openly serving in [the] US military is to end"; and my colleague Heinz Giegerich did a double-take. He notes with puzzlement that he understood it despite the fact that the adverb is clearly in the wrong place. It's not open service that is banned by the military; it's open gayness. How can we possibly understand an adverb positioned as a premodifier of the verb serve when it ought to be positioned before the adjective gay?
He compares these sentences and says no one would think the adverb modified the adjective.
  1. The ban on gay people openly serving in the military is to end.
  2. The ban on unlucky people cruelly kicking their cats is to end.
  3. The ban on stupid people thoroughly cleaning their homes is to end.
He then talks about hypallage, (it's your own stupid fault) while admitting that this isn't the same thing (with hypallage, there is no way to put the adjective where it "should go" - "it's stupid you's own fault"??). But he has to admit that "it isn't quite the same." And he adds "for an error it's curiously close to being able to pass as correct and be unproblematically understood."

I would argue that he's not taking the full context into account. Gay people openly serving is pragmatically the same as openly gay people serving, because the ban is not on gay people being in the military, it's on them being in the military while being open.

So yes, there's a syntactic difference - as there is for the noun-noun pairs race horse and horse race - but because of the specific words involved, that difference is quite minimal, more like slave boy and boy slave. In this particular case, openly could have gone in either place, and to say it's in the "wrong" place and yet is somehow "curiously ... unproblematically understood" is to be putting form ahead of meaning.

(I'm saying this here because the comments are closed there...)

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