Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Party pooper

Professor Brooks seems ambivalent about readers' suggestions for the latest Philosophers' Carnival:
Unfortunately, while not all will appear, a great many do.
This is a job for Language Log!

[Thanx to Daniel for the LL tip!]


Anonymous said...

I could teach Professor Brooks a thing or two about the philosophy of whips, chains and rubbers. I could get him kinked up. Maybe he could get me smarter.

Duck said...

I dunno – he does Hegel's political philosophy; that's pretty kinky if you ask me. Let us know how you make out with that.

Duck said...

If you don't believe me about Hegel, check out the Master/Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hot stuff!

Thom Brooks said...

If you saw all the links I was sent, then you might not have run them all as well....

Duck said...

If you saw all the links I was sent, then you might not have run them all as well....

I have no doubt of it. However, my point was that, as the sentence is written, your initial adverb seems to modify the main clause, not the subordinate clause set off by commas – as if you had tried to eliminate them, but despite your best efforts, a great many of them slipped through. This results in a humorous effect, due to the incongruity. That is all.

Now I really do want to hear what Language Log would say!

Thom Brooks said...

How would you have preferred my sentence? (Perhaps we have a UK/US difference? I wouldn't have started a list using a semicolon as per your first comment.)

Duck said...

Well, let's see. We want the adverb to modify the not-appearing rather than the appearing. So I would probably make the former the independent clause and the latter subordinate, like so:

"Unfortunately, not all will appear, although a great many do."

Or we could have two independent clauses:

"Unfortunately, not all will appear; however, a great many do."

I suppose we could even keep the not appearing subordinate if we tuck the adverb inside:

"While, unfortunately, not all will appear, a great many do."

That's a little clunky. How about:

"While not all will appear, unfortunately, a great many do."

Here that second comma is key (and it helps to say it right). Without it, we have a slightly stiff way of saying the wrong thing.

I'm surprised to learn that there may be a UK/US thing here. Take this sentence:

"Unfortunately, while X happened, Y happened too."

Here context is no help, and my star-spangled ear tells me that X is the mitigating factor and Y the disappointment rather than the other way around. Compare:

"Fortunately, while X happened, Y happened too."

Whew! Good thing Y happened too; otherwise we'd be screwed.

I imagine, though, that if the previous sentence (w/"unfortunately") were spoken in a certain way (say, brightening for the last part), I could at least be confused ("maybe he means Y is good and X is bad"). Of course, most of the time we have context as well (as in our case).

As for my first comment, the dash complicates things somewhat, not least with its informality. Is that what makes it look like a list? (1 = I dunno, 2 = he does ..., 3 = that's ...). I treated it as two thoughts, set off with a semicolon. (I certainly wouldn't say "[1], [2], and [3]", which doesn't make sense. Maybe "[1]; [2], and [3]" – but I think I would have to have worked out the whole sentence in my head first, rather than writing it on the fly.)

Thom Brooks said...

Many thanks for these suggestions. I am not sure that what I said ("Unfortunately, while not all will appear, a great many do") is the same as your "Unfortunately, while X happened, Y happened too." My sentence was part of a larger whole. To place it in context, perhaps I would have been better to say: "Unfortunately, while not all blog post suggestions emailed to me will appear, a great many of the blog post suggestions emailed to me will appear." Would this clarify things?

Duck said...

The point is not that the original sentence is unclear (that is, that we couldn't figure out what you meant). Making the content more explicit, as your replacement does, is not necessary for that. The intention was already clear from the context.

The problem, again (if that's even what you want to call it) comes from the unintentional incongruity of that interpretation with what the sentence, given its form on the page, might more naturally be taken to mean, if we didn't already know better. Your longer replacement does nothing to change this (plus it's wordy, but you knew that).

This is because both the original sentence and your replacement have the same form, i.e., Adverb / comma / subordinating conjunction / rest of subordinate clause / comma / independent clause. My ear, but apparently not yours, says that any sentence of this form is most naturally interpreted such that the adverb modifies the independent clause. That was my point in providing an example which removed contextual clues: "Unfortunately, while X happened, Y happened too." (Too bad about Y, but at least X.) I don't see why this isn't of the same form as "Unfortunately, while not all will appear, a great many do." The substitution is straightforward. (Is "Unfortunately, while [subordinate clause], [independent clause]" any clearer?)

Removing the incongruity means making the meanings line up with each other, not spelling the intended one out so that it trumps the unintended one – thanks to context, it did that already. But if you don't hear the unintended one at all, then I don't know what to tell you.

I was curious, so here are a few Google results:

"Unfortunately, while Jimmy Stewart, that paragon of All-American virtues, provides yet another winning performance as the seminal big band leader, the film is an unsatisfying hybrid. "

Here's another film review:

"Unfortunately, while director Joe Chapelle and writer Daniel Farrands took advantage of a clearance sale at the Horror Cliche Emporium, they forgot to stop in at Plots R Us."

One might also regret the bargains available at the clearance sale, but in any case what is clearly meant to be thought unfortunate here is the filmmakers' failure to complete their shopping.

One more:

"Unfortunately, while the title reflects a catchy phrase from one of the later chapters, it does not really capture the essence of the collection, or more importantly, her work and life."

I didn't find any examples that went the other way, but like most people, I only looked at the first page of hits. If there are any (say in the British press?) I'd be interested to see them.