Unclear antecedents are dangerous

This is one of my pet peeves in grammar, and is very common in student papers.  It can be damaging . .

72 Comments

  1. Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure this doesn’t fit this category, but it’s a favourite, so I’m going to inflict it on you anyway:

    Toilet out of order. Please use floor below.

    /@

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      I’ve seent that done — even without the sign!

  2. dunstar
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    lol. Doesn’t language evolve as well? And along with that comes grammar? So eventually whatever is being used more commonly will become the norm of speaking and writing. So how would it be damaging? I can see it be damaging to the older generation that may not understand what the younger generation are saying or talking about. But if the younger generation can perfectly understand what it is they are talking about then it’s not damaging to them!

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      It’s not that they are violating an obsolete (or obsolete-able rule), it’s that they’ve structured their sentence such that the subject is ambiguous. Now, in this instance you could work it out from context, but that’s not always true.

      I recently helped my uncle Jack off a horse.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

        If you had done that orally (so we couldn’t see the capitalization) you’d have ambiguity. Then again, if you’d have done it orally, it wouldn’t have been … ew, never mind!

        • RFW
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          Actually not.

          It’s not captured in writing but rhythm and intonation clearly distinguish

          I once helped [my uncle jack] [off a horse]

          and

          I once helped [my uncle] [jack off a horse].

          I’ll stick my neck out and say that most people will even use a slightly different intonation if “off” is a verb rather than a preposition.

          “If your dog does a poo, please put it in a litter bin” is unambiguous if one follows the rule that a pronoun refers to the immediately preceding entity. Thus “it” must refer to “a poo”, not “your dog”.

          But the sign is definitely a little weak and squeamish. If it was written colloquially, it would say “If your dog shits on the grass, put the mess in a litter bin.” “Does a poo” is an incredibly childish euphemism for shit or defecate.

  3. Wowbagger
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    At least you didn’t blame it on the fact the sign’s writer is almost certainly Australian; that’s definitely Randwick, New South Wales.

    • corio37
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      I used to live just down the road from that park, but that was long before it became politically incorrect to let your dogs crap wherever they wanted to.

      • Nathair
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        How exactly are sanitation and public health a question of political correctness? Or are we just redefining the term to mean “any change I don’t like”?

        • corio37
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

          Is there really any evidence that dog crap is a threat to ‘public health’? I don’t like seeing it around or stepping in it, but it seems a damn sight more unhygenic to make someone pick it up and carry it around in their pocket till they get to a litter bin.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

            It’s the law here (in New Zealand) that dog owners in towns do just that. They usually carry a plastic bag for the purpose. And it works. It might be more unhygenic for the dog owner, but it’s a damn sight more hygenic for everyone else.

            Years ago, I couldn’t walk down our street without avoiding a dozen piles of dogpoo. Yesterday, on my way to catch the bus, I saw one pile – and noticed it, because it’s become rare. And this is not just because it’s become illegal, but because it’s also become ‘politically incorrect’, just like smoking indoors.

        • Beachscriber
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

          Interesting point, Corio. I’d say regularly stepping in shit or having your kid ride through it on her bike and having the shit spin off the wheel all over her is reason enough to change the rules. But another aspect of the problem is how the flies love it. A few years back we had neighbours who had a large number of cats. Many of them used our garden as a toilet and we had an awful problem with those beautiful big shiny shit flies. When the neighbours moved on, there was a noticeable decline in the number of flies sitting on our food.

          Of course, the odd pile of poo is no problem, it’s just the sheer volume as our own number and living density increases along with the environmentally questionable obsession with owning cats and dogs.

        • Beachscriber
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

          Here in Cape Town, in the wealthy suburb of Hout Bay, the residents have a system they use on the beach whereby a person walking their dog places a little red flag at the dog job to have it picked up by poor, previously unemployed person from the local black squatter camp / informal township. I was once doing some beach calligraphy there and got into a conversation about it with one the lordly landowners about it and he justified it on grounds that it gave someone a job!

        • Beachscriber
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          So who knows, maybe the whole gentleman-of-the-privy tradition is due for a comeback right here in Cape Town.

  4. newenglandbob
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Is there a problem there? Especially for cat aficionados?

  5. Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Pfff. Prononun ambiguity. “It’s”: not a crime. I like this one though:
    “After Governor Baldridge watched the lion perform, he was taken to Main Street and fed twenty-five pounds of red meat in front of the Fox Theater.”
    And that’s despite the criminal mis-spelling of the word “theatre”.

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      Dunno about criminal misspelling. If Americans want to tidy up English spelling, that’s their right, but what do they do about “timbre” and “genre”? And don’t even Americans say “culur” rather than “color”? And I really admire the saving in ink/bandwidth of “neighbor” over “neighbor”…

      • Marella
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        Well if you’re going to save ink shouldn’t it be naybor?

  6. Dave
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Very common in student papers?!?!? It’s very common in newspapers!!!

  7. Don
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    No, I’m sorry, but this graphic does not illustrate an antecedent problem. Really. The antecedent of “it” is its nearest noun, which is “poo.” The confusion is the reader’s, not the writer’s.

    • Chris Slaby
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      While I agree that 1) there is a lack of pure certainty here (much to our enjoyment, in this case), and 2) this is something that all writers who aren’t intentionally aiming for ambiguity should avoid, or at least be aware of, my understanding of the antecedent “rule” is the same as Don’s.

      • jt512
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        Ditto. A pronoun refers to its nearest agreeing antecedent. The sign is not ambiguous.

        • blackbowtie
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

          Ditto – I always thought pronouns refer to the nearest antecedent too.

        • Raimondo
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink

          Sounds like you just made that one up. Your say-so won’t cut it. Give us a reference to a reputable grammar site that backs you up on this. And I said “reputable”. “MyGrammar Blogspot” won’t do…

        • Beachscriber
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

          Raymondo, why on earth do you need an appeal to authority for such a common sense matter? Are you a lawyer? If that rule isn’t in some grammar Bible, it makes perfect sense to make such a rule since most people read such sentences that way already.

          • TomZ
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

            That’s like saying to someone who is looking up how to spell a word in Webster’s “Why do you need an appeal to authority?”

            And isn’t appealing to “common sense” appealing to the authority of the majority?

          • Beachscriber
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

            Tom, I was sitting here smiling and about to say touché when it occurred to me that unlike spelling, logic and grammar are not entirely a matter of convention. Just thinking aloud here: I’d say logic and grammar kind of overlap convention but in some respects supersede it, even determine it, and an appeal to logic / common sense is an appeal to something which supersedes authority.

            Looking at the logic here, one gets deliberate and mistaken ambiguities. A mistaken ambiguity is also a deliberate, specific reference and has one making a choice regarding the noun referred to by the verb. The choice can either be governed by common sense or by a rule / convention of grammar. Now, I’d say common sense trumps the rule. It doesn’t matter how far or near the antecedent is, you’re not going throw the doggy in the bin and whoever says so knows it and is free to flout any relevant rules. If you know the rules they become useful for injecting humour and for irritating people who think the rules trump common sense.

            But having said all that in my defence, I have to concede that nearest or first antecedent does seem more arbitrary than commonsensical and therefore an appeal to convention would be appropriate in deciding which between the two.

            As to common sense and the authority of the majority, wouldn’t you you at least concede that any definition of “common sense” must have it, in some way, wound up with logic? So, common sense has you painting the floor from the corner to the door rather than from the door to the corner. I’d say so, and I’d take it a step further and link it to good judgement too.

            • Beachscriber
              Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

              I’d just like to add that people who think the rules trump common sense are either people who are just kind of getting to know and love the rules or are people who make a living from teaching the rules or who don’t have a healthy enough helping of common sense to rely on. … Though, legalism is also a possibility.

    • Lyndon
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Don, I have heard that as the rule as well. But I also think that many (good) authors are probably loose with such rules and will fall back on the feel and clearly conveyed understanding of the sentence, which may just be something that should be taken on a case by case basis.

      As Chris points out, even if this is the rule there is still the possibility that such a sentence could cause confusion. If a specific sentence is a confusing construction it should be avoided even if it is “technically” correct, as the sign may be. I find the sign fine even though someone decided to play on a possible confusion for humor’s sake.

      The thoughts from someone who does not claim to be a technical or “good” writer at all.

      • Don
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

        Lyndon and Chris, there is a whiff of ambiguity here, I agree. The sentence might have been recast for clarity, and yet, when it comes to antecedent placement, the nearer-pronoun convention is well established. Generally, confusion arises when the antecedent is too remote from the pronoun or when the two don’t agree, but neither is the case here.

    • mordacious1
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      So, if I say, “If your car leaks oil, take it to a garage”, you would take the oil to a garage because it’s the nearest noun?

      • mordacious1
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

        Which would make a good dumb-blond joke: A blond shows up at a garage with a pail of oil. When the mechanic asks her why she has a pail of oil, she replies that her dad told her that if her car leaked oil, take it to a garage.

        • bad Jim
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:57 am | Permalink

          A garage is actually a good place to take used oil.

        • Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

          A good counter example, however we know that language is not formulated by proscritive diktats, but develops organically. There is inherent ambiguity in much English usage, for various reasons. Your example illustrates this perfectly. The sense is clear in both cases, unless you want to read it the other way, for comedic effect. I agree that if the user is to be clear, then be specific – put the POO in the bin – particularly when writing an essay. Clarity of meaning & avoiding ambiguity is there to be applauded. However in a sign then this is just superfluous. Oops!’This’ in my sentence does not refer to the sign (the nearest noun!) but the whole previous sentence! :)

        • Sal Bro
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

          “good dumb-blond joke” = oxymoron

          • mordacious1
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

            Or is that peroxide moron?

            • Asura
              Posted April 4, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

              It isn’t.

              He was right the first time.

        • Beachscriber
          Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:18 am | Permalink

          Humour trades on the deliberate flouting of logic and common sense. It’s not that jokes are illogical, rather that the logic is implied by its flouting.

          If you ask me, logic and common sense trump the the rules of language, and it has to because no rule can govern every situation.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

      At last! Someone else who thinks it’s correct. (And I had to wait till Comment 7 to find one). I think (a) it’s technically correct for the reason Don gave, (b) the construction is potentially slightly ambiguous but (c) the context tends to make the meaning clear anyway.

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:39 am | Permalink

      I was about to say the same thing. ‘It’ is clearly poo!

  8. Tim
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    The problem here is that a “bodily function” is involved and the author of the sign was educated in a schools where bodily functions were not discussed. The person who made the sign became emotionally overwrought.

  9. Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Of course, to me, an expat Limey, it makes perfect sense. Limeys usually refer to their animals according to their gender, not as “it”, but “him” or “her”.QED.

  10. exrelayman
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Brings to mind the joke in Mary Poppins about a man with one leg named Smith. I love linguistic lunacy.

    • RFW
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Which raises the interesting prospect of using word play to get deeper insight into this or that language’s grammar. I’m quite sure that the linguists and philologists have long since explored this possibility.

      What are puns like in, say, Setswana or Georgian?

      English grammar is pretty flexible, but no one reading should believe for one instant that it allows anything. Try to figure out the rule that causes us to say “a big red car” instead of “a red big car”, or otherwise regulates the order of adjectives in a noun phrase. [With a tip of the hat to the great Danish philologist Otto Jespersen.]

      • mordacious1
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        Well, descriptive adjectives in English usually follow this order: Opinion, Appearance (which in your example would include “big”), Age, Color, Origin and Material. So one would say I’d like to own a good, small, new, red, German, stainless steel car.

  11. Lyndon
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Uncharitable grammar police are absurd.

    The antecedents are not unclear because no one in our society would seriously think the meaning of the sign is to put the dog in the trash. Therefore the communicative function was fulfilled which is all that is (specifically) needed when devising communication. That of course is not always the case with the “it” problem as it is a confusing mistake in many student papers and for the rest of us when we are writing.

    Though the humor is appreciated, I did not really get it at first because I did not notice the dog in the trash and did not “know” how to misinterpret the sentence.

    • Naked Bunny with a Whip
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      All the more reason to not be sloppy just because people will be able to figure out what you meant.

  12. Beachscriber
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Ha! None of you get it. That sign has all the hallmarks of a designer – both in look and content. The designer is fully aware of the funny ambiguity that results from stating it that way and is keenly aware of how it would draw more attention to the sign while at the same time breaking the ice and making people positively disposed to obeying the order. This is a well-known device and is done regularly by superior beings such as designers and marketeers.

    • Beachscriber
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      … and it is *used* regularly …

  13. Matthew Cobb
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    None of you have ever had Jerry edit your stuff. He is a devil for those unclear antecedents, and for “brilliant blue skies”

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s enough to make you jump out of bed and punch the sign-maker in your pajamas!

  15. markkoop
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    For some reason, I am far more annoyed by the capitalization of “Please.”

  16. Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Somewhat tangential, but I have no problem with “This door is alarmed.”
    padlocked = fitted with a padlock ; studded = fitted with studs ; alarmed = fitted with an alarm .

    It is the human use of “alarmed” that is anomalous.
    I am alarmed = I am filled with alarm : I am annoyed =/= I am filled with annoy : I am amazed =/= I am filled with amaze .

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      Sorry Shuggy, I don’t think so.

      I am dismayed; I am interested; I am worried; I am distressed; I am fatigued; all analogous to ‘alarmed’. It seems it works in more than one way – alarm -> alarmed, but also puzzlement -> puzzled. I think precedent is everything, some adjectives apply exclusively to sentient beings and some do not (and by that standard, ‘this door is alarmed’ sounds just plain wrong to me, as wrong as ‘this door is interested’).

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 4, 2012 at 1:34 am | Permalink

        I think I’ve just realised what governs here. Alarm is an emotion, and while non-sentient things can cause emotions, only sentient beings can experience them.

  17. pdurrant
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Have everyone missed the small print?

    “Please help keep our open spaces clean.”

    Ugh!

    • pdurrant
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      Damn. “Has….” of course. That’s the problem with no proof-reading after changing one’s mind.

  18. Michael Johnson
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    As others have said, this sign is not referentially ambiguous in the sense that in the context (ordinary situation) it gives rise to an implicature that the poo and not the dog is to be trashed.

    The stupid interpretation violates both submaxims of Grice’s Quality maxim, because the sign writer doesn’t believe that you ought to put pooping dogs in the trash and because the sign writer has no evidence that you should. The correct interpretation is correct precisely because it violates none of the maxims, and in the absence of evidence that speakers are opting out, flouting, etc. we assume that they’re cooperating.

    The rule that the antecedent is the last noun phrase is bullshit though. Consider:

    1. John shoved Bill hard. He fell.
    2. Bill was shoved hard by John. He fell.

    It’s clear that Bill fell in both cases. Antecedent resolution is a pragmatic process. It is almost always “ambiguous” in the stupid sense that some or another prior NP could stupidly be interpreted as the antecedent, if no context is accounted for, but almost never ambiguous in the reasonable sense that reasonable people can’t reasonably catch what’s meant.

    Also, sometimes the antecedent comes after the pronoun, e.g. “When I found her, Susan was crying.”

    • Lyndon
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      I agree Michael and you stated that well.

      There may be the problem, in some cases, that the author has a clear sense of what she is trying to say and believes that the “it” or “him” refers with little ambiguity when it actually is confusing to an interpreter who is not in the author’s frame of mind. Pragmatic rules may help there but I think differing constructions are so prevalent that the rule is worthless, though the rule may at least warn the writer to be careful around these issues.

  19. Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I don’t know where it originated but my favorite is this:

    You take the hammer and I’ll hold the nail and when I nod my head you hit it.

  20. Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    For sale: Antique oak sideboard by elderly lady with beautifully carved legs.

  21. Matt G
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I really hate it when students include grammar in their papers.

  22. Kevin
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    And this is why we need to bring back declensions! We had them in OE, let’s bring them back!

    • Wordpress broke this
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      Public declenching would be a regular thing.

      • Beachscriber
        Posted April 4, 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

        LOL!

  23. Darth Dog
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    “This is one of my pet peeves…”

    Did you do that on purpose?

  24. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    My favorite example appeared on the front page of our local newspaper. Guy wrecked his car, but “fortunately he managed to crawl out of the vehicle before catching on fire”.

  25. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    So you are saying the sentence is poo poo!?

  26. Posted April 4, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    That’s reminds me of this sign I saw in Devon (UK):

  27. Posted April 4, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Okay that didn’t work, let try again:


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