On being an immigrant

Une petite réflexion autour de ces dangereux bilingues, en l’occurrence moi, qui s’aventurent à avoir un jugement instinctif sur la correction grammaticale d’énoncés appartenant à leur langue(s) seconde(s).

Étrangement — étant donné que c’est en France que j’habite — je suis moins à l’aise de revendiquer ce type de jugement en français, genre nominal, subjonctif du passé et terminaisons muettes obligent.

Language-wise, that is.

A question I’ve been increasingly puzzling over lately is whether, and if yes, to what degree, we non-native speakers have a legitimate claim to sprachgefühl#[1] in our second language(s): The process of becoming more fluent and idiomatically correct in whatever tongue we have immersed ourselves in comes with a greater and greater acumen when making instinctive lexical and grammatical choices.#[2] Our judgements may not be strictly speaking pertinent to the study of, say, contemporary English; still we can’t help making them.

Now, I’d be quite happy to be a second-class citizen of the Republic of Anglophonia (and that of Francophonia). It’s the rules linguistic analysis plays by, after all, that decree that my idiolect doesn’t count to the same extent as that of any native speaker. And that’s fine with me. However, I have passed the point where my ideas about what is grammatical or not are merely the quaint observations of a neophyte. Is there any Bill of Rights that says what conditions and restrictions are placed on my staying permit, or when I can put forward my opinion, however insignificant, and when I have to bow to a native speaker’s intuition?

These were the thoughts that went through my mind when I stumbled upon a sentence in a Guardian article and had an involuntary grammatical WTF reaction (see also here):

But the naming of Best was delayed so that his lawyers could make today’s last ditch bid to remain anonymous.

The problem with this sentence is not quite the same as the hang-ups of the dangling modifier type. The dangling part is not a modifier, for starters, but it is at least an adjectival.#[3] The messy bit (”to remain anonymous”) does, however, somewhat resemble an attachment ambiguity, in that the subject of the predicate /remain anonymous/ needs to be inferred from the context.

In constructions of the type

  • X makes a bid/request/choice/pledge/etc. TO VERB_BASE (+ required elements to complete the predicate)

the subject of the last verb is, according to my grammatical feeling, expected to be the same as that of the verb phrase “makes a bid/request/choice/pledge/etc.” Which, in this case, is “his (young Mr Best’s) lawyers” — obviously not the intended reading. It’s Mr Best who wants to remain anonymous, not his lawyers.

There are several ways to fix this. Let’s look at two candidates:

  1. But the naming of Best was delayed so that his lawyers could make today’s last ditch bid for him to remain anonymous.
  2. But the naming of Best was delayed so that, today, his lawyers could submit his last ditch bid to remain anonymous.

The first one is “grammar manual English”, i.e. the way I would rewrite the sentence by drawing on what I have been taught, including implicitly via literature and other bits of “exemplary” English. This, per se, doesn’t make 1. questionable by any stretch of the imagination. A possible point of contention might arise from reading the newly introduced “for him” as belonging to “made today’s last bid [for him]” instead of to “[for him] to remain anonymous”.

Yet literary standard English isn’t the be-all and end-all of grammatical felicity. In the second example I tried to improve on the original sentence without re-introducing the missing subject via the FOR Y TO VERB_BASE construction of 1. The adverb “today” needed shifting around (it could be placed elsewhere in the sentence), there’s a new verb (”make his bid” doesn’t work well for me), and the subject (”Best”) is virtually present as the antecedent of the second “his”, which is much closer to the predicate “remain anonymous” than the nearest reference to the subject was in the original. Two personal pronouns with the same antecedent so close to each other may be considered a bit ugly, though.

So, what’s the verdict on 1. and 2.? Does 2. still elicit a WTF? (I’m kind of okay with it; at least I consider it an improvement.)

And am I out of my depth, swimming out in the ocean instead of the tranquil pond I believe myself to be in?

[1]: Surprisingly, Merriam-Webster Online’s pronunciation sample sounds, apart from a slightly shorter /a/, nearly identical to the pronunciation of the word in standard German.
[2]: In my experience, non-native speaker judgement (mine, anyway) tends to have more false negatives than false positives. In other words, I am more likely to feel that a sample that is rejected as ungrammatical by native speakers might not be that bad after all than to be weirded out by one they consider fine. [3]: All right, I’m not quite sure about this. My terminology is a bit shaky and tends to get confused by the simultaneous presence of several terminogical systems.

2 comment(s) for 'On being an immigrant'

  1. (Comment, 2005-07-14 19:19 )

    The problem with the original sentence it seems, is that the construction NP make bid to VP requires that the NP subject of make be construed as the subject of the VP, like with “try.” (*The lawyers tried (for Best) to remain anonymous [with intended meaning]). 1 remedies this by using a slightly different construction, with a for-to complement rather than just a VP-to. There are plenty of examples like “made a bid for the conference to be held in New York,” “made a bid for the band to come to Cork,” and so on.

    1, to me, seems better than 2, because 2 seems to be unclear on who is doing what, exactly. In “his bid to…”, “his” is normally the person making the attempt, though in this case it’s the lawyers who are doing it on his behalf…or are they just submitting the appropriate documents? (probably the former, but in any case…) When is “the bid” made, anyway?

  2. (Comment, 2005-11-06 01:06 )
    #2 — pat schwieterman

    I actually didn’t notice the problem until I read the sentence carefully a second time, and I think I might not have noticed this particular problem under normal conditions (despite being an English composition instructor who probably should have been more attentive). I think my internal contextualizer decided that lawyers are generally acting on someone’s behalf — it therefore gave the sentence a pass, breezily attributing to it the meaning the writer wanted it to have.

    The fact that you pounced on the problem points to the great value of having you linguistically informed non-native speakers around. Welcome to Anglophonia; please stay as long as you’d like.

    For me, there’s a minor problem with option number one. I have a sense — I may be wrong, but I doubt it — that I’m not the only comp instructor, etc. who might be a teensy bit uncomfortable with with the construction “for him to remain” in formal writing. It’s not ungrammatical, but “for him to” feels a bit awkward with all those little words piled up in a row. Russell’s examples avoid the problem because they don’t employ pronouns. For me, there’s also bleedover from my kneejerk gerund reflex. I’m so used to correcting a phrase like “him remaining anonymous” to “his remaining anonymous” that I flinch just a bit when I see the accusative appear almost right before the verb.

    Option Two would be fine in speech. In writing — as you more or less acknowledge — having a word or phrase set off by commas right after the “that” is pretty awkward. Possible, but awkward.

    I’m not at all surprised that the recording for “sprachgefuhl” sounds virtually identical to the German pronunciation. We native speakers of English nativize foreign loans so easily that we have problems trying to decide what to do with those common terms that still refuse to be fully assimilated. You can sound either “uneducated” or pretentious. Many of us just leave off the “-re” on “joie de vivre” when we use it in speech. Since it’s a common option, I use it: that “-re” can be pretty subtle in French speech, and it’s hard for me to reproduce convincingly. As a result, I drop it out of fear of sounding both fussy/affected and incompetent. But then again, other natives have collared me for not giving the phrase a sufficiently French pronunciation. Waddya do?

    Sprachgefuhl and sprachbund are less problematic for me — they’re still very technical, and I’ve only heard them in the speech of linguists and of friends who have a burning interest in matters linguistic. Such people use a German pronunciation, more or less. I think if I ever used Sprachgefuhl in speech, I’d unround the “uh” of “fuhl” and say “Shprockguhfeel,” splitting the difference between a pronunciation that acknowledges the origin of the word and one that doesn’t sound too pretentious and alien in my own speech.

    A bit off topic, but — in reference to the Zwicky article you cite — Lederer’s use of “dangling participle” probably won’t add that much to the confusion among the public. We compostion instructors have already confused people because we are confused. “Dangling participle” has become almost a fixed phrase for us, so we unthinkingly generalize it to mean virtually any misplaced modifier — and I suspect we commit the error on tens of thousands of student papers annually, thereby spreading it. I’ve done it; I’ve often seen others do it. Nostra culpa, nostra culpa, nostra maxima culpa.